The Great Hall at Winchester
Sir Walter Ralegh was tried for treason in the great hall of Winchester Castle on Thursday 17 November 1603. As with almost all treason trials of the period, the result was a foregone conclusion: he was found guilty. The jury took less than fifteen minutes to reach its conclusion, surprising even the king’s counsel, the recently knighted Sir Edward Coke, in its speed: he was still out walking in the castle gardens when the verdict came in.
And yet, the day was in many respects a personal triumph for Ralegh.
Hitherto, he had been widely detested by both his peers and the populace for his arrogance and apparent avarice. He had been, one courtier said a year or two previously, ‘the most hated man in England’. Indeed, the journey from his prison in the Tower of London to the castle in Winchester – the court was out of London because of an outbreak of plague – was particularly fraught. ‘It is almost incredible with what speeches and execrations he was exclaimed upon all the way through London and the towns as he went; which they say he neglected and scorned, as proceeding from base and rascal people. They threw tobacco-pipes, stones and mire at him, as he was carried in the coach,’ a friend at court wrote to the earl of Shrewsbury.
The dignity, courage and wit with which he defended himself during these few brief hours in Winchester changed all that irrevocably. ‘In half a day,’ one witness said, ‘the mind of all the company was changed from the extremest hate to the greatest pity.’ Another said: ‘never [had] any man spoke so well in times past, nor would do in the world to come’. A third, bringing the news to James I, reported that ‘whereas when he saw him first, he was so led with the common hatred, that he would have gone a hundred miles to have seen him hanged; he would, ere he parted, have gone a thousand to have saved his life’.
I was very sorry to read on Twitter yesterday of the death of historian Kevin Sharpe. I cannot claim any direct connection with him, but as a postgraduate student in the late 1980s, I found his writing thrilling. Intellectual excitement isn’t much remarked on these days as a class of pleasure, but reading work which both makes you appreciate the complexity of the past and helps you understand it more clearly, and which also offers you an exemplary and instructive approach to historical research and analysis that could illuminate your own work and its limitations, was an enthralling experience.
There was politics behind the choice of East Anglia for Elizabeth’s summer progress in 1578. During the course of the summer, Elizabeth stayed twice with Philip Howard, Earl of Surrey – heir of the foolish traitor Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk – just turned 21 that June. Kenninghall, Norkolk’s great palace, had been shuttered since his execution in June 1572. It was reopened now – restored to life – for the queen’s visit, a symbolic restoration. Surrey spent lavishly in pursuit of Elizabeth’s favour: her visits to Kenninghall and another mansion in Norwich were said to have left him £10,000 in debt.
It was no doubt for the benefit of adherents to Norfolk’s former cause that the government stage-managed the humiliation and arrest of a young catholic gentleman named Edward Rookwood as the court made its way from Bury to Kenninghall. Being entertained at Euston, his family’s house, on Saturday August 9th, Elizabeth received Rookwood and gave him her hand to kiss. It was discovered – a piece of theatre – that Rookwood had been “excommunicated for papistry” and he was called before Sussex, the lord chamberlain, who demanded of him “how he durst presume to attempt [the queen’s] real presence, he, unfit to accompany any Christian person”. Rookwood was ordered out of his own house and, further, committed to the town prison in Norwich.
A scene from The Spanish Tragedy
The life and work of Thomas Kyd offer a perfect example of the problems posed by the erosion of evidence over time – see my post here – since what little we do know seems wholly arbitrary in its survival, yet also hints at the enormity of what we have lost.
Kyd, a prosperous scrivener’s son whose family hailed from the area around Lombard Street, was born in 1558 – he was baptised on 6 November – six years before Shakespeare and Marlowe and fourteen before Jonson. By virtue of his age, therefore, Kyd belongs more than any of them to the hinterland of Elizabethan drama, before works began to appear in print.
Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange
Hobbinol’s excellent post on the Elizabethan theatre and the plague has reminded me – somewhat tangentially, I accept – of one of my favourite anecdotes from the Tudor theatre. Perhaps anecdote is the wrong word. In some respects it is a pretty insignificant event, but I think it reveals a great deal about the tensions between the performers and the censorship they worked under, about the players’ attitude to risk, and about the complex politics of patronage and power.
In brief, the Lord Mayor of London had received orders from William Cecil, Lord Burghley, early in November 1589 to stop all plays within the city. He attempted to effect this by summoning the two troupes he knew to be active in London at the time, the Lord Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men, on the morning of November 5, and commanding them in the Queen’s name to desist from performing until they were told they free again to do so. Both were significant companies of actors, and it is likely that Lord Strange’s Men employed both Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe as writers around this time.
Many thanks to those who have taken the time to comment on my previous post on the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Since one of those, from Howard Schumann – sorry I can’t work out how to link to it – is from an Oxfordian perspective, I thought I should reply more fully.
My general point is that too much evidence is granted a weight of certainty it doesn’t possess. So, for instance, Howard writes that conventional chronology dates the sonnets to 1592-6. To be honest, I don’t know if that is conventional or not. I do know that there isn’t any evidence for it. A couple of sonnets were certainly written in the 1590s, since they appear in the 1599 Passionate Pilgrim collection. For the rest, the only this that is certain is that they were written by May 1609, when the book was registered.