Betrayed by Envy’s Whim: Oxford, Southampton and Davison’s Anagrammata

Identifying the “impious crew” of Catilines in Francis Davison’s epigrams

Francis Davison’s 1603 publication of Anagrammata in Nomina Illustrissimorum Heroum contained thirteen epigrams in praise of eminent men, “fairly predictable exercises in courtly flattery” as described by Dana Sutton of the Philological Museum. Yet the epigrams for the Earls of Oxford and Southampton “may merit more consideration” in Sutton’s opinion.

The one addressed to Oxford congratulates him on his non-involvement in the Essex Rebellion. One wonders why Davison thought this necessary. Even more curious is the one for Southampton, which explicitly states that he had been convicted on false testimony inspired by envy.”

In fact one follows the other on the broadsheet (#9 and #10) with a continuation of themes. Taken together these epigrams are like two windows opening onto a worldview that could only be represented obliquely.

As Oxfordian scholar Nina Green recognized in her analysis: “Anagrammata has political overtones, and the personages named in it may represent a political faction of sorts, if only in Francis Davison’s view. The absence of Sir Robert Cecil, Lord Henry Howard, Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Cobham and others from the list of ‘heroes’ is very noticeable.”

The Lord Secretary Sir Robert Cecil, his old faction (including men like his brother-in-law Lord Cobham, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Baron Grey of Wilton) and his new faction (primarily Henry Howard and Thomas Howard) were, as noted, absent from this list of illustrious heroes. Since the inner cadre around Robert Cecil had gained and lost members but always remained in power their exclusion is very telling.

In certain quarters Cecil and his faction were held responsible for the downfall of the Earl of Essex and this may have been Davison’s view. Davison, who seemed “anxious to gain the favour of the Earl of Essex”, exchanged letters with Essex secretary Anthony Bacon, receiving praise for his Relation of Saxony. That Davison had come to the attention of Essex is evident as a copy of that work was noted to have gone missing from the Earl’s library in 1596 and Essex sent the writer a “friendly letter of counsel and encouragement.”

It may have rankled still that his father William Davison was imprisoned and lost his position as Secretary of State after being made the fall guy for the decision to execute Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Robert Cecil’s father William, the Lord Burghley, who dominated the Privy Council at the time, had managed to evade ultimate blame for the decision. In a sense William Davison was made the political scapegoat so that others on the council could escape censure. That the Lord-treasurer Burleigh endeavoured to suppress and keep down Mr. Secretary Davison (290, f. 237 in the Harleian Mss collection) has been  attributed to Francis Davison by editor Sir Nicolas Harris. [1]

So let us examine these two epigrams from a pro-Essex, anti-Cecilian point of view, keeping in mind that such views, if held, could not be stated openly.

by an anagram

Though by your zeal, Fortune, you keep perfidy’s murmurs and schemings at a distance, nonetheless I learn (at which my mind and ear quake) that our bodies have been deafened with respect to evil affairs. Indeed, I perceive men who come close to Catiline in deception, freeing other men’s fates by their death.

Oxfordian scholar Nina Green has determined that this work was completed within a window stretching from May 20th to July 21st of 1603. Oxford by his zeal and the protection of the Queen (capital ‘F’ in Fortune) had kept treacherous gossip and plotting (perfidy’s murmurs and schemings) at bay. Yet in March as “Fortuna” lay dying Oxford was accused by the Earl of Lincoln of conspiring against the succession of James I to the crown. After failing to get the Lieutenant of the Tower Sir John Peyton to take up the investigation Lincoln sent two letters north to the incoming King James, one carried by his son Thomas Clinton, a brother-in-law of Cecil’s ally Thomas Howard. These accusations were entered into official record in October when Peyton was required to explain to Lord Secretary Robert Cecil why he had not pursued allegations of that “plot” involving Cecil’s brother-in-law the Earl of Oxford. This was just weeks before the trials of Cecil’s former allies, his other two brothers-in-law George Brooke and Lord Cobham as well as Sir Walter Raleigh over the Main Plot, an investigation spearheaded by Cecil.

“Indeed I perceive men who come close to Catiline in deception, freeing other men’s fates by their death.” Catiline refers to the Roman conspirator Lucius Catilina. A populist member of the Roman Senate, his stepped battle with political enemies ended in a failed attempt to overthrow the government by armed force which can be likened to the political battles of the popular Earl of Essex and the failure of his armed rebellion. Sargent Yelverton compared the Essex Rebels to Catilines in opening arguments at the trial of Essex and Southampton. Like Essex, Catiline remained popular with the masses even as his name was anathematized by the government. Both figures were reviled and idolized after their deaths.

However the word Catiline was also used in A Treatise of Treasons (1572) as a descriptor for two of Queen Elizabeth’s top aides, William Cecil who in that period was created as the Baron Burghley and promoted from Lord Secretary to Lord Treasurer and his brother-in-law the Lord Keeper Nicholas Bacon. Oxford’s old enemy Charles Arundel claimed that the Earl was fond of this quickly suppressed anonymous tract that alluded to his wife’s father and uncle as “Machiavellian Catilines.” A Treatise attempted to defend the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots and her intended, Oxford’s close cousin the Duke of Norfolk, whose lives hung in the balance after the discovery of the Ridolfi plot that planned to place her on Elizabeth’s throne. Years later, as Arundel claimed, Oxford asked him to procure a copy of the contraband work. While Arundel is not a trustworthy source, there was another independent report to Lord Burghley that his son-in-law attempted to hire a ship called The Grace of God in order to free Norfolk in the early 1570s. In fact Oxford may have secretly written the work after abandoning attempts to arrange a prison break and escape by sea. That Oxford was the author is the position taken by Nina Green. Arundel had been imprisoned with Henry Howard in 1580 after Oxford turned them in for Catholicism with intimations of treason. Oxford was a cousin to Henry Howard, who was Norfolk’s brother, and to Thomas Howard, who was Norfolk’s son. Thomas Howard was also a brother-in-law of Thomas Clinton who delivered the letter accusing Oxford of plotting against the succession.

Note that Sir Francis Bacon was also missing from Davison’s list of illustrious heroes. Though Bacon and Henry Howard were advisers to the Earl of Essex, both had distanced themselves by the time of the Essex Rebellion. Bacon then served as one of the prosecutors at the trial, some thought too aggressively – he later published a lengthy defense of his conduct as prosecutor – and Henry Howard joined nephew Thomas Howard and Robert Cecil as the top aides under James. Henry Howard’s plan documented in letters to Cecil to see to the entrapment of Cobham and Raleigh, former allies in the fight against Essex, was apparently a success as Cobham, Brooke and Raleigh were all convicted over the Main Plot. When Davison wrote his epigrams he included many of the men who had participated in the trial, but most pointedly omitted the zealous prosecution team, Edward Coke and Francis Bacon, as well Cecil, Cobham, Raleigh and the Howards.

Not only were Bacon’s and Cecil’s fathers called Catilines in A Treatise of Treasons, but the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench who presided over Norfolk’s trial was Sir Robert Catlyne whose family was believed to be descendant of the Roman conspirator Lucius Catilina.[2]  While A Treatise of Treasons consisted of two parts, the first written before and the second after the conviction of Norfolk, the author rather uniquely applied the label of Catilines to conservative government officials that, as he saw it, were not just persecuting Norfolk for political gain but were themselves traitorous rebels plotting to destroy the old nobility and the monarchy itself.


Detail of Cicero Denounces Catiline, Cesare Maccari, 1882-1888


Davison’s allusion to Catilines is interesting because of its ambiguity. If he’s using it in the generally accepted sense the Essex Rebels are the Catilines. Yet one of those Essex Rebels – Southampton, second in command to Essex- was honored with his own epigram in which he was claimed to be “guilty of nothing”, unfairly censured, “betrayed by envy’s whim”. If Davison was an Essex sympathizer than who were the Catilines he was condemning?  They could well have been sons of the Catilines from A Treatise of Treasons, Robert Cecil and Francis Bacon and all the others blamed for bringing Essex down. Cecil’s enemies could even make an anagram out of it. Catilines can be rearranged to spell Cesilian with a letter ‘t’ left over.

Apart from Southampton, those honored with epigrams were not Essex Rebels. Some had participated as judge or jurists at the Earls’ trial  but were innocent of persecuting Essex in the eyes of his supporters. For instance although Lord Buckhurst presided over the trial of Essex and Southampton, a few years before he was reported to be aligned with Essex. The victory that saw Buckhurst winning Burghley’s office of Lord Treasurer despite contest from Robert Cecil led to a coolness between those Privy Councillors. “Strangnes continewes between” them, a court observer reported. [3]

When Davison suggested that these were men whom no one “imitating hellish enterprises, has striven to arm with steel against the heir of the realm,” who was the heir being threatened? The tie-ins to the Essex Rebellion were deliberate. Yet the Queen was “the heir of the realm” over 40 years before and she was gone by then. If James was the heir in question than why was Davison alluding to the Essex Rebellion?

In fact while the Essex faction ostensibly supported James, many of their followers wanted Essex to be the heir apparent and officials had no trouble finding multiple witnesses who reported such talk. Who was going to control the Queen, the Privy Council and therefore the succession was exactly what was at stake in the Essex Rebellion. Essex faction supporters would have seen the “heir of the realm” as Essex and Cecil’s faction as those who, “imitating hellish enterprises”, pushed him to the sword. For instance we don’t often consider the impact of the melee that happened weeks before the rebellion when Cecil’s devotee the Baron Grey of Wilton led a vicious gang attack on a lone Southampton in the street, nearly severing the arm of the boy attending his horse. Worse he spent little time in jail for the atrocity. While the Earls claimed that this attack was the cause for their action historians generally attribute the loss of a lucrative sweet wine contract several months before as the reason for rebellion.

The Catiline reference appeared in Oxford’s epigram and no other. Not only was Davison covertly referring to the zealous Cecilian faction as Catilines (and possibly giving an h/t to the real author of A Treatise of Treasons), he also alluded to the bartering for lives that went on behind the scenes following the Essex Rebellion. The line about “freeing other men’s fates by their death” may point to men like Gillie Merrick whose scaffold request for noblemen to intercede with Elizabeth after his death to prevent “further proceedings” followed a March 8th letter settling arrangements for his family in which he wrote, “Then for your being at Essex House, it is true, and what you did, God knows, was by my command, and I hope in God that my death will satisfy your error whatsoever.”

Some had to die so that others might live. The forfeited estates of the condemned were distributed among the Queen’s men while others paid dearly for their freedom. That lives could be so casually bartered for on such a grand scale and for profit obviously did not set well with Davison or Oxford. Robert Cecil was the most powerful among those who traded in lives after the Essex Rebellion which clinches the sense that the word Catiline was exploited for its dual meaning, linking the Cecils and the power they held over life and death in Shakespeare’s England. While that epithet appeared to be a condemnation of Essex rebels, its ulterior signification was that Robert Cecil and those of his allies who profited from the tragedy, men like Cobham and Raleigh, were the “men who come close to Catiline in deception, freeing other men’s fates by their death”.

By comparing Southampton to Theseus, the Greek culture hero whose slaying of the Minotaur ended the ritual sacrifice of Athenian youths in the labyrinth, Davison continued the theme of sacrificed victims though this one had been saved.


by an anagram


Justly you were able to pour forth this complaint from your mouth, your lot was harsh while a false accusation prevailed. “Lo, Theseus is guilty of nothing, here I fall by an unfair lot’s censure, betrayed by envy’s whim.” But now the complaint is to be altered, because of altered perils. Great man, do you take a fall with an innocent heart bearing witness? Not at all. The heir, wielding the scepter of rule conferred under Jove’s auspices, grants you to live free of this care.

This time the heir was clearly James I. Essex was executed but Robert Cecil protested that he was trying to save Southampton’s life and the Earl was freed early in the reign of James. Davison makes it clear that enemies had tried to make Southampton a scapegoat and had failed.

Oxford’s and Southampton’s epigrams both alluded to the sacrifice of lives (freeing men’s fates by their death/Theseus reference). Both carried references to the Essex Rebellion. Both men were dealing with the lies of aggressors. Southampton’s epigram spoke of a “false accusation” and “unfair lot’s censure”. Oxford’s hinted that he was under attack by “perfidy’s rumours and schemings” and mentioned “men who come close to Catiline in deception”.  If one was grave and the other exultant the two epigrams taken together are like 3D glasses, with themes that appear in both lenses given added dimension.

Davison’s opening sentence may begin to make some sense now.

Your fidelity, my lords, none of whose hands anybody, imitating Hellish enterprises, has striven to arm with steel against the heir of the realm (oh would that he, to his bidding the Fates are obligated, would command that this impious crew should fall!), will be my song.

Or maybe not. Yet the confusion was deliberate. While James was at least overtly the heir who was mentioned, buried deep in the convoluted construction of that first line was the hope that “this impious crew should fall!” Davison was using the cover of Essex Rebels to talk about the wished for fall of another “impious crew”, that other group of Catilines.

Cobham, Raleigh and Southampton’s particular enemy, the Baron Grey of Wilton, were imprisoned that summer over the Main and Bye Plots. The Baron Grey of Wilton was the one who attacked Southampton. Cobham and Raleigh had been deeply involved in the war against Essex and in the bartering for lives after the rebellion. The heir of the realm could certainly command their fall.

Though the timeline is tight George Brooke was arrested with the Bye Plotters in July and was arraigned by the Ides of the month. Lord Grey was also implicated in this first plot to kidnap the King. Brooke then accused his brother Lord Cobham who in turn implicated Raleigh in the sketchy Main Plot to kill the royal family. Raleigh was the last to be arrested, delivered up on July 19th. Nina Green believes that Davison’s work was completed by July 21st at the latest.

The most significant facts in the dating of Anagrammata are that Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, is referred to in it as the King’s lieutenant in Ireland, an appointment made by King James on 21 April 1603, and that he was created Earl of Devonshire on 21 July 1603. The conclusion therefore seems inescapable that the terminus ad quem for the publication of Anagrammata is 21 July 1603. It is inconceivable that Anagrammata could have been published after Mountjoy’s elevation to an earldom and not have referred to him as Earl of Devonshire.

Was the publication rushed to press in honor of those arrests or was the timing merely coincidental?  Whether Davison merely hoped for the downfall of Cecil’s former cabal, men clearly in disfavor with the king, or whether talk of their arrests was flying about even as he completed the epigrams, he shared grave concerns about “evil affairs”, “perfidy’s murmurs and schemings” and “Catilines” who would “free men’s fates by their death” in Oxford’s epigram and celebrated Southampton’s survival in the next. Oxfordians believe that Oxford helped to barter for Southampton’s life, which is supported by the evidence of these two interlinked epigrams.

Yet even as he rejoiced over Southampton’s resurrection Oxford remained in grave danger. Cecil’s other brothers-in-law and Raleigh were in prison and within three months of the Main Plot arrests Cecil was investigating their jailer, Sir Peyton, wanting to know why that lieutenant had not pursued accusations of Oxford’s involvement in a plot against the succession. Perhaps they were trying to weave Peyton’s case into the Main Plot. In January of 1604 Dudley Carleton wrote that Peyton was “disgraced for entertaining intelligence between Cobham and Raleigh” but the accusations against Peyton never gained traction with the king. [4]

Coincidentally Shakespeare was also living through days of peril even as his suspected Fair Youth, Southampton, was spared. Echoing the dire sense of apprehension in Davison’s epigram for Oxford, in Sonnet 107 Shakespeare marked the Queen’s passing as the eclipse of the mortal moon and celebrated Southampton’s release under James but in that “balmy time” he also noted that

“…death to me subscribes

Since spite of him I’ll live in this poor rhyme,

While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes.”

Shortly after the Queen’s passing the figure of death is giving patronizing speeches to a powerless and suppressed audience and he holds Shakespeare’s life in his hands. This sonnet was penned perhaps days after Lincoln reported to Peyton that Oxford had inveighed against Scots and was plotting against the succession of James. Peyton, working to stock and fortify the Tower and perhaps consulting with a soon-to-be-free Southampton declined to pursue a case against Oxford. By then Oxford and his two sons-in-law (one a stepson of his accuser) had failed to appear at the Great Council that proclaimed James as king, though he later complained of Cecil delaying notices for him to appear at Whitehall or not sending them at all.

By the time Shakespeare penned Sonnet 125, Oxford, the ceremonial Lord Great Chamberlain, had been removed from a position of honor in Elizabeth’s funeral procession though it is not clear why the Herald of Arms took his name off the list. In this sonnet which Hank Whittemore dates to the time of the Queen’s funeral, Shakespeare opens “Wer’t ought to me I bore the canopy…” then waxes philosophic about social climbers, offers his poor but free oblations and ends with a rejoinder that seems to come out of nowhere.

Hence, thou suborn’d Informer, a true soul

When most impeached stands least in thy control.

IMPEACH, synonyms: indict, charge, accuse, lay charges against, arraign, take to court, put on trial, prosecute…
****BRITISH  usage, charge with treason or another crime against the state.*****
late Middle English (also in the sense ‘hinder, prevent’; earlier as empeche ): from Old French empecher ‘impede,’ from late Latin impedicare ‘catch, entangle’ (based on pedica ‘a fetter,’ from pes, ped- ‘foot’). Compare with impede.

To paraphrase, an honest and truthful person (true soul) when accused of a crime against the state (when most impeached) stands least in the lying informant’s (suborned informer’s) control. This was how the the anti-Cecilian faction saw themselves, as true souled individuals, men of conscience, struggling to save their country from the depredations of the reigning faction of Catilines.

Whether this was an ironic comment to the fair youth or an aside to a real accuser who would never read the line, Shakespeare also seemed preoccupied with lying informers and possible charges of treason at this time. Whether it was the Stratford man who wrote that Sonnet or, as I believe, Oxford, King James would favor the author.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the conflict between these factions you can read Peyton Investigation and the Main and Bye Plots. You can also follow @AShakespearean on Twitter.

Thank you to Nina Green and Dana Sutton for their translations and analysis of the works hyperlinked within the text.

[1] (DNB, Vol. 14, 1888, p. 176)

[2] Campbell, John. The Lives of the Chief Justices of England, 3rd Edition, Vol. 1:4, London: John Murray, 1874, p. 228-229

[3] Hill, Lamar M. Bench and Bureaucracy: The Public Career of Sir Julius Caesar, 1580-1636, Stanford University Press, 1988, p. 115

[4] CSP, James 1: Vol. 6, January-March, 1604. January 15, 1603/04, letter Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain; HOP, Peyton, John (1544-1630)


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