Maurice Berkeley and the Scots Plot


Here’s a late breaking news flash. On the night of the death of the 17th Earl of Oxford, leading alternative candidate for authorship of the works of Shakespeare, the Earl of Southampton, dedicatee of Venus and Adonis, was arrested with the brother of the overseer of William Shakspere’s will. 

Sir Maurice Berkeley of Bruton (1577-1617) is a figure in the nexus surrounding Shakespeare that has previously been overlooked. This Parliamentarian arrested with Southampton and Sir Henry Neville of Billingbear as well as the Baron Danvers, a Lee and two unknown others on the night of Oxford’s strangely occluded death warrants attention, especially when you consider that Berkeley was a half-brother of Thomas Russell, the overseer of William Shakspere’s will.  Henry Neville, who was married to a cousin of Berkeley’s wife, has recently emerged as an authorship candidate in his own right so he is also a person of interest.

While researching figures in the nexus between William Shakspere and Edward de Vere, I was skeptical and surprised when I realized that the man arrested with Southampton on the night of Oxford’s death was the same man I researched when exploring connections to Thomas Russell.

Their mother Margaret Lygon, who first married Sir Thomas Russell of Strensham and as a widow wed Sir Henry Berkeley of Bruton, was a first cousin of Francis Savage who was married to Anne Sheldon, a sister of Sir Ralph Sheldon of Beoley. Ralph Sheldon was the father of Oxford’s sister-in-law Katherine Trentham nee Sheldon. Katherine Sheldon married Francis Trentham in 1591, the same year that Oxford married Trentham’s sister Elizabeth.

Additionally Sir John Russell of Strensham, Margaret Lygon’s stepson through her first husband Sir Thomas Russell of Strensham, had married and divorced Elizabeth Sheldon, a sister of Katherine Sheldon Trentham and these are just two of the multiple recursive connections of the Russells and Sheldons.

Throughout these family lines we also find connections to William Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon and to Shakespeare. For instance, a daughter-in-law of Francis Savage and Anne Sheldon, Elizabeth Hall, after their son Walter passed away married Simon Underhill, whose father sold New Place to Shakspere for a cut-rate price. A daughter of Walter Savage and Elizabeth Hall named Mary wed John Washbourne and their son William Washbourne brought property with the Globe sharer Henry Condell. When Francis Savage passed away Anne Sheldon married Anthony Daston and their daughter together, Anne, married Ralph Huband who sold a 1/2 share in the Stratford tithes to William Shakspere. A rare original copy of the First Folio that once belonged to Sir Ralph Sheldon’s grandson Edward is now owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Thomas Russell was apparently a very close friend of Shakspere by 1616. His stepson Leonard Digges would also be one of the few tapped to provide a commendatory verse for the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, a volume dedicated to the Earls of Montgomery and Pembroke–Oxford’s son-in-law Philip Herbert and his brother William who was then the Lord Chamberlain.

Except for the arrest of Berkeley, all of these connections have been documented extensively by Nina Green at the Oxford Authorship Site. The relationship of Sir Maurice Berkeley to Thomas Russell via their mother Margaret Lygon was also documented and fully referenced there on the data page reproducing her will.

The fact that the Berkeley arrested with Southampton on the night of Oxford’s death was also the half brother of the overseer of William Shakspere’s will has not been previously noted. It is evident that Margaret Lygon encouraged a closeness in her sons. Maurice and a younger brother named Henry were sent up to Queen’s College Oxford where their elder half brother Thomas was already a student. Their relationship and the bit parts they played in the authorship story are indisputable, yet the fact that Maurice Berkeley was also arrested with the Earl of Southampton is one of those connections that for various reasons is difficult to see, like a tree root that’s invisible in the dark until it trips you up. In the interests of seeing that this connection is properly documented I will lay out the references that verify this information and also point out some of the reasons why this link escaped attention for so long.

The obscurity may partly be due to caution on the part of Berkeley. Though he was knighted by Essex in Cadiz, Berkeley and his brothers were not listed as Essex Rebels unlike many of their friends, including Southampton and Neville. There was also a dating error related to the Gaudy letters that helped to obscure what happened on that fateful midsummer evening when de Vere apparently died and Southampton and Neville were rearrested after little more than a year of freedom. Though Berkeley gained a reputation as a rebellious MP in the first Parliament of James, he stopped being “Little John Nobody who durst not speak” during a period which was deliberately veiled in history. Afterwards he became much more circumspect. He continued to be his own man in Parliament or at least never consistently Cecil’s and the King’s, but he was not drawing attention to himself. Tobie Matthew knew his friend Maurice Berkeley as ‘a gallant, noble, witty gentleman, and withal a most honest man’, but he was also self effacing, as his HOP bio put it: “His prospects were further hindered by a tendency to introspection and self-doubt. In 1608 he claimed that he had never considered himself ‘destinated to a public life’ on account of his ‘general inability, besides many particular infirmities’.”

Yet in the spring of the year he was 26 Maurice Berkeley stood up and was counted in the fight to prevent James from changing the name of England. Dudley Carlton even named Berkeley as “the one who first turned the stream backward” in the matter of unification of the Isle.

“On 18 Apr. he objected strongly to the adoption of the name Great Britain, arguing that if the traditional names were to be lost, then Scotland should initiate the change, being the less glorious and honourable kingdom of the two…. He resumed his complaints on 20 Apr. when a conference was proposed with the Lords to discuss the change of name, warning the House that it must ‘either proceed with danger, or desist with shame’. “

He merited attendance at a special session James held to try to sway the naysayers and was even sent up to a conference at the House of Lords, assigned to speak on “honor and reputation” in regard to the proposed name change.

Southampton was the famous one, Neville older and more experienced, but Berkeley may have been a particular concern for the crown at the time. He and his fellow MP Henry Neville had married Killegrew cousins. Berkeley’s younger brother Henry married Henry Neville’s daughter. These men were not just a faction in parliament, they were family. What must have been most galling to Cecil was the fact that they were linked into his family circle through the Killegrews and did not start their rabble rousing until after Berkeley and Neville sat on the committee that saw Southampton’s titles restored.

Formerly allied with Cecil (though in the case of Neville far less securely since he met with the Essex Rebel leaders who promised to give him Cecil’s position, what was in essence Secretary of State), Neville and Berkeley would work with the powerful Lord Secretary when their interests aligned, but not in the matter of unification. Berkeley’s vocal opposition to this project so close to the King’s heart may well have led to the arrest of his political faction. Though news of the arrest was itself suppressed, from letters that the Spanish and Venetian Ambassadors sent home we know that Southampton and his friends were swept up for arrest under the suspicion that they were plotting to kill the King’s Scots advisers.

In 1606 Berkeley was leaned on again, this time called to the Privy Council carpet to answer charges that “he had promised to oppose anti-Catholic legislation in the Commons, and had even expressed support for a Catholic rising in England.” These were serious charges based on information obtained from Southampton’s mother, facing pressures of her own as Roman Catholic noble in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot.

Berkeley’s speeches in Parliament would not be saved for posterity but his defense in this matter was preserved: “I do confess that the Countess of Southampton told me that there was a very severe and terrible bill coming from the higher house against Catholic recusants, but that I promised her to speak against it, when it came amongst us, or not to speak for it, that I utterly deny…whereas I am accused that I wished the Papists would rise, if it be affirmed by two witnesses it is of no purpose for me to deny it…if I had used any words tending to that effect in the presence of two, the lady of Southampton being one of them, and the other one that I cannot yet call to mind, it might rather be interpreted apparent folly than secret malice…it might have proceeded from some humour to make her discover in what perplexity she was, being a Catholic, or to make her discover as much as she knew of the humour of the Catholic party….it might be interpreted anything rather than any practice intended for that faction.” [1]  These were cagy words, but then Maurice Berkeley was a man who came of age in Shakespeare’s England where the old faith was rigorously suppressed. It helped that he was known for Puritanism. “The Council apparently accepted his vigorous denial of these allegations, which originated with the recusant dowager countess of Southampton” according to his History of Parliament biography.

We know little about key events that happened in the spring and summer of 1604. Consider the pall shrouding Oxford’s death, the lack of an official record regarding the arrests that night, the silence surrounding when Jonson was called out on the Star Chamber carpet for “treason and Popery” in Sejanus his Fall (which most likely occurred between April and October of that year), and the dearth of information about what was said when the rousing speeches of Parliamentarians opposed to the King’s plan to unify England and Scotland caused James I to prorogue the session on July 7th 1604 (the day after Oxford’s supposed burial that as far as we know no one ever heard about or attended). As Francesco Priuli, the Venetian Ambassador to Spain said of dealing with James and his administration “the profound silence of this government makes it almost impossible for me to arrive at any certain information.” [2]

James was a master at stone-walling. Released on the morning after the midsummer 1604 arrest Southampton wanted to know who had accused him of plotting to kill “Scots about the king.” The king gave him “fair words” but no answers. In 1650 Anthony Weldon would write that it was Robert Cecil who “put some jealousies into the king’s head.”[3]

James I’s top aide had the same ability that his father was famed for, that knack of knowing “what things are to be laid open, and what to be secreted, and what to be showed at half lights and to whom.” [4] To a great degree he was also able to decide what would be passed on for posterity, confiscating papers and letters after the death of important figures like the spymaster Walsingham. In the case of Jonson’s interrogation in the Star Chamber on some unrecorded date and the arrests of Southampton and his friends on June 24th 1604, no records were kept. Is it coincidence that mention of these incidents only survived in the writing of a friend in the case of the former, and in the French and Venetian archives and a misdated letter in the Gaudy family papers  in the latter?

As a result of this lack of transparency, the roundup of men on that Midsummer’s Eve was engulfed in a black hole until Akrigg in his biography of Southampton brought it to light. The sources that he used remain our only sources today: letters in the Venetian and French archives and a passing reference in the Gaudy letters. Yet we know from that letter to Basingbourne Gaudy that there was talk of the arrests in the court community as it was summarized that the letter writer “Expects Gawdy will have heard how the lords and others who were called in question Sunday night are all discharged and the Earl of Southampton in favour again.” On the English Isle, all would be silence if not for that one letter to Bassingbourne Gaudy or, in the case of Jonson, William Drummond’s mention of how another of James I’s most powerful knaves Henry Howard had almost done the playwright in –“Northampton was his mortal enemy for beating, on a St. George’s day, one of his attenders; he was called before the Council for his Sejanus, and accused both of popery and treason by him.”

Yet we are lucky to have primary source and reference materials easily accessible over the internet. For instance besides the wealth of information contained in the digitized English calendars of state papers at British History Online, another invaluable reference is The History of Parliament Online. In their own words the History of Parliament “is generally regarded as one of the most ambitious, authoritative and well-researched projects in British history.”

“Forty-one volumes covering ten periods have already been published… in all about 25.5 million words, 20,000 pages, 21,000 biographies and 2800 constituency articles, covering 326 years of parliamentary history.”

When it comes to Maurice Berkeley therein lies the rub. Though his first session in Parliament was in 1597 as a junior member he did not merit much of a biography prior to the Parliament that began on March 19, 1604. The stub for his bio in the book covering Elizabeth’s reign from 1558-1603 normally pulls up first or instead of the more comprehensive article that covers his career in the Jacobean era. I have clicked on the link for the 1604-1629 reign of King James and then entered the search terms and still pulled up the stub from the prior reign instead of the full biography from the time of James. What’s worse, the Elizabethan stub has the wrong birth year. To view Berkeley’s full HOP biography you have to pull up the correct article:

There a reader can view his data in remarkably condensed detail (and obtain references):

b. c.1577,  1st s. of Sir Henry Berkeley† of Bruton and Margaret, da. of William Lygon of Madresfield, Worcs. and wid. of Sir Thomas Russell† (d. 9 Apr. 1574) of Strensham, Worcs.; bro. of Sir Henry Berkeley* educ. Queen’s, Oxf. 1590, aged 13, BA 1593; M. Temple 1594;   Cadiz expedition 1596;  embassy, France 1598. m. by 1597, Elizabeth, da. of Sir William Killigrew I* of Hanworth, Mdx., 5s. 2da.  kntd. 27 June 1596. suc. fa. 1601. d. 1 May 1617.

Offices Held

Steward, S. Stoke and Corton manors, Som. 1601; j.p. Som. by 1602-d., commr. sewers 1603, 1610, 1616, col. militia ft. by 1605-9, dep. lt. from 1608, collector, aid 1612-13.

Member, Queen Anne’s Council from 1603, Council for Virg. 1607.Cttee. Virg. Co. 1609; member, E.I. Co. 1611.

One can also verify at the bottom of paragraph six that it was this Maurice Berkeley who was rounded up with Southampton. “When Southampton was arrested on 1 July, just before the end of the session, following false allegations that he planned to kill some Scottish courtiers, Berkeley briefly found himself under suspicion as one of the earl’s closest associates.” Notice that they misdated the arrest to July 1st.

That Henry Neville of Billingbear was also arrested on that night can be confirmed in his Parliament online bio, paragraph 7. “Shortly after the Parliament was prorogued, Neville was again accused of conspiracy, as was the earl of Southampton, who was re-arrested. However, the charges against both men were found to be groundless and were suspected, by the French ambassador, to have been the work of the Spanish faction at Court.” As evidence for the arrest occurring soon after Parliament was prorogued on July 7th, they cite a letter of the French Ambassador from July 5th and admit “Details of the alleged conspiracy are wanting.” They are even farther off the mark on the date this time, but we cannot imagine Southampton was arrested on Jun 24 with the gang, on July 1 with Berkeley and “shortly after” July 7 with Henry Neville. We must trust the letter that Molino wrote on June 26 which established that Southampton had been held over night and released on the morning of the 25th.  

Apart from the incorrect date for the arrest of Southampton and his friends and a lack of interest in his half brother’s Shakespeare connections, the full article is the most comprehensive and accurate write up on the topic of Maurice Berkeley in existence. The Parliament Online biography has the Southampton arrest, but not the Shakespeare connection; his Wikipedia page has the Shakspere connection but not the Southampton arrest (and as of this writing an incorrect birth date of 1576 that they did not get from the linked HOP Elizabethan stub that has 1579, another mistake, for a birth year).

Dating errors have plagued accounts of those Midsummer arrests. The letter from Francis Morice to Bassingbourne Gaudy, #587 in the collection of the Gaudy letters, was ironically misdated to June 7, 1604.  However due to the letter’s mention of the arrest of a man named Sharpe “yesterday” and after the “restraint of the Lords and the rest the Sunday before”, the editor inserted this letter among others dated July 3rd and 23rd. The only reference to this arrest known to exist on the Isle, it was a private letter that was misdated by over two weeks.

If you lay the old and the new style calendars side by side for comparison, the old style date of June 24 1604 fell on a Sunday. If the Gaudy letter was dated OS July 1st, also a Sunday, then his statement that Sharpe was arrested yesterday (June 30th, a Saturday) and this was after “the former restraint of the lords and the rest the Sunday before…” the arrest would have happened on June 24th. The Gaudy information would then agree with Venetian Ambassador Molino’s letter that documented the release of Southampton and friends on June 25th in a letter that was sent the next day. Ju followed by an illegible scrawl and a sevenish looking number 1 are all that’s required to make sense of the discrepancy. Since someone had already mistaken July for June, hence its listing in the publication of Gaudy letters as the wildly far afield June 7th, it is entirely possible that they mistook an ornamental 1 for a 7.

Mistakes abound for Sir Berkeley. The Magna Carta Sureties 1215, a volume that traced lines of descent from the Barons named in the Magna Carta, listed the year of his death, 1617, as his birth year. The Elizabethan History of Parliament Online has the birth year incorrectly as 1579 but corrected the data in the Jacobean version while Wikipedia citing the HOP stub somehow came up with 1576.

Maurice Berkeley of Bruton, born in 1577, was the son of Sir Henry Berkeley and Margaret Lygon. That he married Elizabeth Killegrew, a cousin of Henry Neville’s wife Anne Killegrew, had two full-blooded brothers named Henry and Edward and a half-brother named Thomas Russell who was the overseer of the Stratford man’s will in 1616 and that he was arrested with the Earl of Southampton in the Scots Plot can be verified at the links included in this article. No one site contains all the information but that these sites are referring to the same Maurice Berkeley there is no doubt.

So this was the series of mistakes perpetuated in the historical data that contributed to the Scots Plot and the identities of the men arrested with Southampton escaping attention for centuries until Akrigg came along and did some real research. Later Randall Barron read the biography and realized that the ‘Fair Youth’ had been arrested on the same date that Oxford died.(Chapter 43 at link) It is even possible that Oxford died after Southampton’s arrest, though on the same night.

Now those who care about the authorship question can ponder what it means that Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton and leading candidate for Shakespeare’s beloved Fair Youth was swept up for arrest with Henry Neville, the fellow Essex rebel who was held with him in the Tower until the reign of James I, and with Sir Maurice Berkeley, a half-brother of Thomas Russell, overseer of the will of William Shakspere, on the night that Oxford died.

Given Berkeley’s defiant stance in Parliament at the time, it is possible that he was not just swept up as a friend of the faction but was one of the main targets of the trumped up Scots Plot. Since the Earl of Lincoln tried multiple times to turn Oxford in for conspiring against the king’s succession and “inveying against the Scots” it is even possible that Edward de Vere wound up questioned that night. While unlikely, there is nothing to rule out that he was not himself one of the two unnamed men rounded up with the Southampton faction.

Buried amid the nonsense of Ourania, Nathaniel Baxter left a memorial for Oxford which read in part:

No traytor, but ever gratious, and true:

Gainst Princes peace, a plot he never drewe.

But as they be deceiv’d that too much trust:

So trusted he some men that prov’d unjust.


De Vere was not a traitor, but he “trusted…some men that prov’d unjust.” The “unjust men” are sometimes said to be his old enemies Henry Howard, Charles Arundel and Francis Southwell, casting all the way back to the early 1580s in keeping with the time frame of the rest of the remembrance. This was precisely the point where the Earl’s life went off track, to be sure, but Baxter may have been putting the reference to dual use. In other words he may have been alluding to events that happened at the end of the Earl’s life under the guise of a reference to early times. It would be particularly effective if Henry Howard, in faction with Cecil, was involved in the Scots Plot and Howard’s old enemy Edward de Vere was one of the men being targetted.

As for what really transpired for Oxford on that fateful Midsummer’s Eve, we can only hope another letter will turn up and bring truth to light.

[1] Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare’s Patron, p. 304

[2] “…time may consume the ill-humours”:, sourced from World Heritage Encyclopedia (I could not verify this quote); “The profound silence of this government…”: British History Online, Oct. 1. 1605, Venetian Archives, 428. Francesco Priuli, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.

[3] Mark Anderson, Shakespeare by Another Name, p 360

[4] B.W. Beckinsale, Burghley: Tudor Statesman, 1967, p 193


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