Lady Elizabeth Russell (Dowager Countess of Bedford)
A semiotic analysis of Elizabeth’s striking appearance in this portrait suggests, at least from the voluminous white-laced hood that she has the ears of a dormouse, her complexion has all the qualities of the Dog Rose (Rosa canina), and a plain yet feisty expression. It’s true that she had an ear for gossip, scandal and espionage. Her costume is black and white, like the markings of a badger (she was known for badgering the Privy Council over some issue that would build on and improve her civic status) or a magpie (meaning perhaps that she had an eye for treasure, trinkets as well as policing and defending her neighbourhood). Now black is the colour of surety, honour and loyalty while white symbolises purity and ostentatious fame. By later historians and commentators she has been described as pernicious, arrogant, belligerent, and irascible, and of persistently meddling and pompously moralising into other people’s affairs in order to further her own estate.
She was born Elizabeth Cooke (1529-1609), the third of Sir Anthony Cooke’s four clever daughters (among the most notable being Anne Bacon, Margaret Cooke and Mildred Burghley) and went on to marry Sir Thomas Hoby of Bisham Abbey, Berkshire in 1558. Unfortunately, in 1566 Sir Thomas Hoby died while working as an English ambassador to France leaving his only son and an expectant wife to flee back to England as the climate towards diplomats in France was far from congenial due to the conflicts brought by the Hugenots opposition to the Guise family and the French Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici. Elizabeth then went on to marry Sir John Russell, the son of the Earl of Bedford in 1574, she had two daughters by him, Elizabeth (nicknamed Bess, she was Queen Elizabeth’s god-child) and Anne, a maid of honour to the Queen. As Sir John Russell died in 1584 before he had achieved his hereditary title, his wife was deprived of his title but still claimed it as unfair for a woman to be deprived of money, estates and a legitimate title merely because she was a widowed woman. Although a long-term resident at Bisham Abbey she also had a small town house in the Blackfriar’s precincts and was one of the leading petitioner’s against the opening of the Blackfriar’s Theatre to the general public. The petition issued in November 1596 saw the closure of the Blackfriar’s theatre under the Privy Council’s assertion that it was as a result of the widespread plague in London although more likely to the rowdy behaviour of theatre audiences. It was previously a much smaller building and a private theatre (Farrant’s theatre) but James Burbage saw an opportunity to construct a larger property alongside it for the purpose of staging public plays to a very select and enlightened audience. Her minor estate at the Blackfriar’s also housed a small printer’s workshop leased by Richard Field who had published some of William Shakespeare’s poetry, namely Venus & Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece. Such were Lady Russell’s martial skills and expertise that in 1596 Queen Elizabeth made Lady Russell a military custodian of Donnington Castle which infringed the rights of the Lord Admiral, although that contest dragged on until 1606 when it came up before the Star Chamber, where she unwittingly lost her case. She was extremely well-educated having a grasp of Latin, Hebrew, Greek, French and Italian, writing from a French version of a treatise on the Sacrament which she published in 1605 with the aid of the printer Richard Field. She strongly condemned and admonished her brother-in-law Robert Cecil, and Anthony Bacon over many personal issues connected to women’s rights in matters of state security and was herself employed as a spy with the aid of Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham. When she had safely left France she was also suggested as a potential wife to the Duke of Norfolk, who as we know at the time really fancied his chances more with Mary Stuart, (Queen of Scots) but none of those options led to any sort of fruition. I have already discussed the possibility of Mary’s marriage to an English Lord in “Shakespeare’s She-Wolves” and “The Two Rival Queens” (Part Two) in a previous post. In fact the Duke was found guilty of treason and like Mary was summarily executed. It seems that her father, Anthony Cooke and John Cheke were implicated in a plot to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne of England, after that they were suspected of conspiracy to poison Edward VIth, even though doctors advised he had merely died of a lung disease. They were arrested along with other conspirators, tried, found guilty, eventually pardoned on appeal and then released when Elizabeth Russell was just twelve years old. Realising that the conflict between Mary’s accession to the throne would reignite the long held animosities between Catholic and Protestant factions, her father removed himself to Strasbourg, just as the spymaster, Francis Walsingham had done. There her father established a Marian “safe-house” for those Protestants fleeing from Mary’s persecutions in England. Meanwhile William Cecil became a proxy guardian and executor for the young Elizabeth, in the absence of her father until Queen Mary died on the 17th of November 1558 and Cecil was appointed Secretary of State by Queen Elizabeth. At the same time in Scotland the zealous, chauvinist preacher, John Knoxe published his diatribe entitled: “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”, referring in general to the reign of “Bloody Mary”, but secretly alluding to the accession of Queen Elizabeth as well. In his book he wrote:
“Women should not presume to use the offices due to men for a woman promoted to sit in the seat of God, that is to teach, to judge or to reign above men, is a monster in nature, contumely to God, and a thing most repugnant to his will and ordinance”.
Which I think echoes the recent Taliban’s patriarchal insistence that Afghan women are not worthy of, nor should be endowed with an education, at least not in, comparatively speaking, 16th century Afghanistan. John Knoxe’s statements were a matter of concern to Jean Calvin (Head of the Calvinist Movement in Switzerland), whose tone was not as severe as Knoxe’s when it came to the matter of Women’s Place in Education, and he attempted to distance himself from Knoxe’s remarks.
In his book “The Mystery of William Shakespeare” Charlton Ogburn suggests that a clandestine affair took place between Queen Elizabeth and the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere and that this encounter was the inspiration for the poem Venus & Adonis. This would have portrayed Queen Elizabeth herself as lustful and predatory especially towards younger courtiers. However, Elizabeth understood and presumed that marriage would severely undermine her supreme authority and role as Queen, and that any clandestine sexual scandal might equally do the same. Fortunately, her ministers both Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil (Lord Burghley) saw to it that sexual scandal did not arise or attach itself in any way to the Queen. Despite their efforts British diplomats abroad had difficulty convincing other nations that the Queen’s Court was anything but a hotbed of incest, controversy and vice. It was highly unlikely therefore that she would seriously consider any marriage proposal during her early reign when she had styled and promoted herself as the “Mother of the Nation”. This being the basic narrative by which Roland Emmerich and John Orloff directed and produced their successful, but nevertheless controversial film “Anonymous” in 2012, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and Rhys Ifan.
Amongst many other matters Elizabeth Russell’s letters to the Privy Council establish that the 17th Earl of Oxford was involved for several years in negotiations regarding the marriage of his eldest daughter, Elizabeth Vere and in ensuring that her new husband would provide her with a suitable jointure, and sufficient funds to live on after his death. The Earl of Oxford’s letter of 24th April 1595 also reveals that Lady Elizabeth Russell, Elizabeth Vere’s great-aunt, played an otherwise unnoticed role in proposing that the 6th Earl of Derby should provide his future wife with maintenance amounting to a phenomenal £1,000 a year. Another revealing aspect of the letter is the oblique wording which suggests that both Lady Russell and the 6th Earl of Derby felt that Elizabeth Vere was engaging in certain amorous improprieties, a concern expressed more directly in Oxford’s letter of the 17th of September 1596. Paul Hammer suggests that this was merely a flirtation, or perhaps an affair, with Robert Deveraux, the 2nd Earl of Essex. The intrigues and scandals surrounding Lady Russell’s life and her contribution to social and political matters at home and abroad seem to have been deleted or veiled for some reason. She no doubt was aware of the purchase of the Blackfiar’s Gatehouse with the dubious claims of ownership of that property by William Shakespeare and several actors/managers of the newly constructed Blackfriar’s Theatre by Burbage. She (along with her letters, papers and diaries) could easily be a “missing piece” in the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy since her links to Sir Edward Coke, a prosecutor to the Gunpowder Plot and Sir Thomas Lucy, of the Charlecote Estate, Stratford who contested the granting of a coat of arms to John Shakspere because he was not in any sense connected, through his wife Mary Arden, to the noble family who owned the nearby Arden Park Hall Estate. As we now know the coat of arms was eventually granted to one William Shaxpere with the motto: “Not Without Right”, to the amusement and astonishment of the playwright Ben Jonson who satirised his achievement in his play “Every Man Out Of His Humour”.
In his book “Shakespeare & the Countess” (Imprint Publications, 2014) Chris Laoutaris carefully explores and articulates the life of Lady Elizabeth Russell and her connection to the rise and fall of Shakespeare’s career as a poet and playwright. For example he makes a good comparison with the Countess of Rousillon in Shakespeare’s play “All’s Well That Ends Well” as a possible character source. He writes in his prologue:
“for the woman who took up arms against the Blackfriar’s Theatre, with devastating consequences for the “Sweet Swan of Avon”; set in motion the chain of events that would be the making of Shakespeare as we know him today: the Shakespeare of the Globe.”
He describes how on the 30th January, 1860 a group of esteemed and venerated scholars were summoned by the Master of the Rolls, Sir John Romilly to the State Papers Office in London to examine and verify a 16th century petition against the owners of the Blackfriar’s Theatre, initially brought by the Dowager Countess of Bedford, Lady Elizabeth Russell. The retinue of scholars included Sir Francis Palgrave (Palgrave’s Treasury), Sir Frederick Madden, J. S. Brewer, T. Duffus Hardy, and N. A. Hamilton. After a long period of examination and discussion they wrote:
“We, the undersigned, at the desire of the Master of the Rolls, have carefully examined the document hereunto annexed…and we are of the opinion, that the document in question, is spurious”.
As a result of this declaration by such eminent historians and archivists a dispute broke out both publicly and among curators arguing the case for and against the editor John Payne Collier, who was ostensibly accused of forgery, even though another archivist (Robert Lemon) had subsequently retrieved the papers and added: “That this document was not spurious”.
Apparently because the petition papers were signed and headed by a woman the archive committee were doubtful of their authenticity. Now I have already mentioned in a previous post how “academic group think” works, that Stratfordian academics will go to any length to discover any artefact, manuscript or previously unknown play or poem to substantiate the author as William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon who was presumably also the author of the 1623 Folio. You would have thought that attitudes towards women would have changed dramatically by the 19th century, but it seems not much had changed since the days of the zealous evangelist, John Knoxe.
Lady Elizabeth Russell’s father Anthony Cooke had been a tutor to Henry VIIIth’s son, Edward VIth, whose uncle Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford oversaw the prince’s education in royal affairs and the affairs of state. With four daughters to house and educate he converted the fortified mansion of Gidea Hall, previously a family estate into the first all female university. Here, under supervision and guidance they read and discussed Cicero’s “Tuscalan Disputations” which introduced them to his stoical summations and philosophical conclusions. These were largely humanist in style and content and would have adopted a rather radical approach to religious questions and adherence to the faith. Another book of importance to the girl’s upbringing was “The Book of the Courtier” (Castiglione), the works of Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Thomas Hoby’s translation came with a dedication to Henry Hastings (The Puritan Earl), considered by many to be the most eligible to succeed to the English throne should Elizabeth die without an heir. The Cooke sisters gained a reputation as learned but radical intellectuals and were recognised by William Barker in his “Nobility of Women” as an independent group of highly educated females which included the Seymour sisters, the daughters of the former Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset. Mildred for example translated a sermon by St. Basil the Great and gave a copy as a gift to Anne Seymour. Mildred it seems suffered from a deformity of the spine (scoliosis) which she had genetically passed on to her son, Robert Cecil and which Shakespeare had depicted in his play Richard IIIrd as being a psychological and as well as a physical deformity. By allusion, it would seem that Shakespeare was attempting to satirise Robert Cecil as untrustworthy, malicious and generally paranoid. Anne Bacon likewise popularised the work of Jean Calvin with her translation of the sermons of the Italian Calvinist Bernadino Ochino in 1548 and printed by John Day in 1551. She also translated Jewel’s “Apologiia Ecclesiae Anglicanae” (Apology for the Church of England) published in 1564. Coincidentally, they were supportive of John Foxe’s “Acts & Monuments” again published by John Day in 1551 which led the way towards rationalising and reforming the edicts of the Anglican Church. However, they withdrew their support for Sir Robert Dudley who they suspected of killing his wife Amy Robstart, in order to be free to marry the Queen in 1560. However, while acting as ambassadors to France Thomas Hoby and his entourage came in for some criticism from the leaders of the Hugenot faction that the new Protestant Church in England still favoured the Catholic Mass as well as Catholic supporters in general, which was to a certain extent true. Moreover that the Catholic rituals, vestments and other sacred objects were still being worn and used in their religious ceremonies which embarrassed the English contingency when it was revealed to be neither wholly Protestant and in part still of a Catholic persuasion. This threw much doubt on how pious, stoical and puritanical was their new Queen and her supporters, namely William Cecil and Francis Walsingham. Alongside this view the Hugenots were quick to point out the danger posed by Mary, Queen of Scots who was ostensibly a pawn in the hands of a Popish faction who were intent on destabilising affairs in England as well as in France. Catherine de Medici was quick to point out that she would not assist or intervene with financial or military support following the assassination of David Riccio by Lord Darnley and yet there was a danger that the Papal authorities might send troops to intervene in France and then assist Mary’s mission in Scotland which was by now looking rather tenuous if not veering towards a total disaster. It seems that Mary had written to the French court begging for financial and military assistance, but this was declined although her father the Bishop of Lorraine had been financing Mary for some time. Little did Mary know that her secret communications with the French and Papal authorities were being intercepted, decoded and translated for the benefit of Queen Elizabeth and her Secretary of State, William Cecil. In this regard it is quite likely that Elizabeth Russell had some share of informing covertly the intentions and secret plans Mary had committed herself to and which were later used to incriminate and convict her of treason. It seems that Thomas Hoby had inadvertently informed Catherine de Medici of the build up of Hugenot troops and supporters which led to further embarrassment and indifference to Queen Elizabeth’s own plans for keeping France if not Spain away from her shores in England and for that matter from Scotland or Ireland.
As already mentioned the Blackfriar’s site where Lady Russell used as a town residence had also housed a small indoor theatre that had been active since the time of Henry VIIIth. The district of Blackfriar’s was also an independent parish with its own laws and regulations quite distinct from the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction and Lady Russell took upon herself the task of moderating and legislating its affairs. She organised and produced a census of the area, listing its inhabitants along with their properties, income, rents and leases. Also resident there were of course William Brooke, Lord Cobham and Henry Carey, Lord Hundsdon, all of whom were connected to the theatre and the Master of the Revels. By the time the new Blackfriar’s theatre had been built (1576), the lease being acquired from William Hunnis who also lived within its precincts in what was the monastery’s Great Cloister. They managed to block any leases or acquisitions which would as it were lower the tone of the area (“lewd and evil behaviour”). In some sense Elizabeth was the equivalent in our lifetime of the scourge of popular and libertarian media, Mary Whitehouse or other notable “nimbys” living in Metropolitan London. Richard Burbage subsequently passed on the Blackfriar’s lease to the Welsh scrivener Hugh Evans who was sufficiently equipped with the legal and commercial skills to further its future financial success. Shakespeare’s character in the Merry Wives of Windsor is presumed to have been based on him. Hugh Evans then passed on the lease to the illustrious 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere who then gifted it to his personal secretary, John Lyly in June 1583, and the rest is, as they say, literary history. It set the scene for the Earl’s own Oxford’s Boys, apprentice actors to perform there. However, whenever the theatre was threatened by local complaints for whatever reason a portion of the lease was given over to Lord Hunsdon, and Henry Carey who both had a passion for theatre and all things musical and literary. They managed their own Queen’s Choristers and the Lord Cobham players. At times it was Puritan riots and rowdy or unruly behaviour which threatened the theatre’s existence and Stephen Gosson was chief amongst the protesters. In November 1596 Elizabeth Russell presented her own petition to the Privy Council in an attempt to close down the Blackfriar’s Theatre, the petition was signed by William More, Sir Thomas Browne, William de Lawne and Lord Cobham as well as numerous neighbours and newly arrived wealthy and talented immigrants in the district. Among them was Thomas Vautrollier, a printer and bookseller who in partnership with Richard Field published Jean Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” on the 18th of February, 1583 with an introductory epistle to Richard Martin, a champion for Christian causes.
Another strange coincidence seems to reverberate over the death of her second husband John Russell who died in the home of John Chomeley, an associate and acolyte of Dr. John Dee on the 23rd of July 1584. Chomeley was a medical practitioner practising in Highgate but had been challenged by the medical profession and the College of Physicians over his credentials and eligibility to practice medicine. He was also in the service of the “Puritan Earl”, Henry Hastings, the 3rd Earl of Huntingdon to whom Thomas Hoby had dedicated his “Book of the Courtier” which features strongly as a literary source for the poetry and plays of William Shakespeare. It seems Dr. John Dee became Lady Russell’s confidant and personal advisor whenever she faced dilemmas and conflicts in her own life and circumstances. Now I have already described Dee’s relationship to Queen Elizabeth and to the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere in my essay “The Queen’s Sorcerer”, which describes the institution of the British Empire, the foundation of a Masonic College in England headed and instituted by Sir Francis Bacon (Sacred Order of the Rosy Cross) and the use and practice of magical alchemy in the Elizabethan era. Among Dee’s many salubrious clients and patrons was the Polish exile, Count Palatine of Sirada, Albert Laski who sought Queen Elizabeth’s assistance in order to assume the royal throne of Poland. He was also recruited as a spy by William Cecil with the full consent of the Queen and subsequently Lady Russell embraced Dee’s notion of a Pan-European Protestantism and its formulation and final establishment. On Friday the 17th June Dr. Dee’s Italian astronomer and philosopher, Giordano Bruno (also working as a spy, Henry Fagot for Walsingham) was invited to give a lecture, with the support of the Earl of Leicester at Oxford at which Albert Laski would attend and be ceremoniously celebrated as the next in line to the Polish throne, apparently as secretly predicted by Dr. John Dee in one of his spirit conjurations or angelic séances. However, Bruno’s lecture was not entirely well-received at least not without some disputations, the like of which I have described in the essays concerning Shakespeare’s Astrology and Shakespeare’s Cosmology. Fully a decade before Bruno’s lecture Lady Russell had contributed to a scientific treatise by Dr. Bartholo Sylva’s “Giardino Cosmografico Coltivato”, which was dedicated to the Earl of Leicester.
At this point in time the scandals and the intrigues surrounding both Elizabeth Russell, her family connections and the plots of Catholic recusants threatened to overwhelm her long held credibility and status. At her husband’s funeral she was at pains to attend visibly and honour her husband as a nobleman even though the College of Arms still insisted that, although directly related by marriage she had no claim to the title held by the Duke of Bedford. According to the rules and regulations set out the chief mourner to such an occasion would have to be the male son of the Duke inheriting the title, not his widowed wife or daughter, and yet despite their deplorable objections she did attend and take a prominent place in the funerary procession. Despite this she was forbidden to furnish a banner depicting the Bedford arms and motto “Rest On High”. However, she did take a prominent role in funerary affairs, being responsible for the mausoleum, the dedications and monuments of her first husband Thomas Hoby, her infant son who died a year after he was born and her second husband John Russell.
Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland, was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his involvement in the Francis Throckmorton plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and suffered unduly with poor health and the restrictions he endured there. He was eventually found dead in his chambers with several gunshot wounds to his chest severing his heart, and when examined by Lord Hunsdon was presumed to have died in a brutal suicide. William Cecil was at pains to hold an inquest at the Star Chamber and to officially write a report on the matter, at least to keep the record straight should the temperature among recusant Catholics at home and abroad begin to rise again. How anyone could feasibly shoot themselves through the heart on three successive occasions is a mystery to me. At least that was the official verdict but like the accidental murder of Christopher Marlowe (See “Who Killed Christopher Marlowe”?) other aficionados argued that he was killed as a result of orders issued from Cecil’s headquarters or the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley. His son, also named Henry Percy, now the 9th Earl of Northumberland inherited the title and was also extremely suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his father’s death. Henry Percy married Dorothy Perrot, the daughter of Robert Deveraux the 2nd Earl of Essex, who himself instigated the Essex Rebellion in 1601.
Another prisoner held as a result of the Throckmorton conspiracy was Francis Arden, a member of the family who thwarted John Shakspere’s attempts to obtain a coat of arms by linking his wife’s namesake Mary Arden to the Arden family of Park Hall, Cudworth, Warwickshire. The main instigator of the Throckmorton plot to shoot the Queen was John Somerville of Edstone, Stratford-upon-Avon who was married to Margaret Arden, the daughter of Edward and Mary Arden. Their rival, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote was a staunch Protestant and was aware of the Arden’s secret involvement in plots against Queen Elizabeth and he was himself supported by the Leicester faction nearby mainly through Ambrose Dudley, the Earl of Warwick. At about the same time William Shakspere, who would turn out to be a jobbing actor, had just married the now pregnant Anne Hathaway and was a mere nineteen years old. I mention this incident because it seems Elizabeth Russell’s life was tied into numerous connections by family marriage, religious affiliation and mutual support. In particular she was distantly related to ardent Protestant Thomas Lucy of Charlecote who suspected the Arden family of harbouring Catholic recusants and preventing John Shakspere from obtaining his coat of arms.
A year before Lady Russell presented her petition to close the Blackfriar’s Theatre and just after Francis Langley had opened a new theatre, known as the Swan (3rd November 1594), riots and disorder broke out near the Blackfriar’s site following the first performance of King Henry VIth Part One. The Lord Mayor appealed to the Privy Council for assistance to police the area or effectively close down the theatres which were frequented by vagabonds, cut-purses and riotous companies of young men. By the 22nd of July, 1596 when the plague was spreading in London the Privy Council had a good reason to impose closure of London’s theatres but it was still perceived as an unnecessary “lockdown” measure both by the actors, playwrights, the audiences and the theatre managers whose livelihoods depended strongly on theatrical performances. It was also the same year that William Shakspere was ordered to keep the peace (W. Gardiner/Wayte). With George Carey’s and Thomas Hoby’s signature on her petition the Privy Council had no other choice but to finally close down all of the London theatres and leaving William Shakespeare an opportunity to write poetry for his select audience of noblemen. It also left the way clear for the building of the Globe Theatre in 1599 which opened with the well known Roman history play Julius Caesar.
We arrive now at an extremely complex set of events and circumstances that probably came about with the dissolution of Francis Walsingham’s network of spies just after his death in 1590, that is two years after the Spanish Armada had been defeated. Another map or network of intelligencers began to emerge and reorganise themselves, those managed and regulated by Robert Cecil, those managed within the Earl of Essex faction (including Walter Raleigh and Henry Percy), and those managed by other aristocratic families such as the Pembroke, Southampton, Monmouth and Suffolk dynastic lines. Alongside this as Queen Elizabeth faced her final years as monarch were a number of “contenders” for the English throne jostling for position in the event of her death or quite likely assassination. Like Edward de Vere (acting covertly through the theatre), Anthony Bacon (the brother of Sir Francis Bacon) had openly aligned himself to the Essex faction in 1595 although he had been suspected of having sexual relations with young boys while in France and was arrested but later released due to the intervention of Henri IVth. When he returned to England in 1592 his aunt, Lady Elizabeth Russell took it upon herself to question Anthony about these so-called “rumours” since she was concerned of the repercussions to the family’s honour and reputation. His main agents were Anthony Standen (Scotland) and Antonio Perez (France & Spain). The elimination of Christopher Marlowe in 1599 (presumed to be an accidental death following a disagreement over a dinner bill) was probably the result of what he knew about certain members of the Privy Council’s involvement in the plots against the Queen, as well as Anthony Bacon’s personal affairs and the role that he played as a double agent.
The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows: