http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Slanderisation and Censure-ship: When Good Texts Went Bad in Early Modern England

Slanderisation and Censure-ship: When Good Texts Went Bad in Early Modern England

Steven Veerapen

[1] In 1653, the playwright, poet and antiquarian Arthur Wilson’s The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I was published. The text included a reflection on what had become an axiom of political culture in the Stuart age: that poetry and libel had an interdependent relationship. To Wilson,

peace begot plenty, and plenty begot ease and wantonness, and ease and wantonness begot poetry, and poetry swelled to that bulk in his time, that it begot strange monstrous satires against the King’s own person, that haunted both court and country. (Wilson 1653: 289-90)

Wilson’s jaundiced view of poetry seems fanciful; yet the rise of the verse libel in the Stuart era is well documented. Not only do legal reports of the early modern period recognise the problematic growth of libel, but recent scholarship has made significant inroads in tracing the blossoming of verse libels as a distinct and multifaceted cultural mode, often containing licentious accounts of individuals or political events (Hawarde, Reportes: 143). Indeed, the developing vehicle of the verse libel rapidly became, as Andrew McRae notes, a recognised feature of political and literary culture in the Stuart age (2004a: 1). These often pithy little poems were naturally anathema to the law, not least because they were characterised by their invariably anonymous manuscript circulation. Anonymity itself proved to be an extremely useful means of circumventing legal reprisal, and explosive libels ‘were at one and the same time both written and spoken, simultaneously oral and textual’; and yet the relative success of adopting anonymity as a means of circumvention was not one with which Elizabethan slanderers were routinely armed (Fox 1994: 65). Instead, it emerged gradually, and was met with a flexible legal system that was willing to prosecute anyone who could be found to have knowledge of material deemed seditious or slanderous, whether they were its creators or not.

[2] However, Alastair Bellany has noted that ‘our understanding of the verse libel’s genealogy is hazier than it should be’. In order to understand the rise of these texts, which were so problematic to the Stuart regime (and worthy of exasperated recognition by Wilson), it is useful to consider the varied means by which slanderous, libellous and seditious discourses were disseminated and countered during the pre-Stuart period (Bellany 2007a: 1165). Although Wilson’s view might suggest a pre-Jacobean world of harmony and industry, this was demonstrably not the case. Rather, libel and slander flourished in the Tudor political and domestic spheres, notwithstanding the nascence of the formalised, anonymous verse libel. Indeed, the blossoming of this particular form is arguably a product of pre-Stuart experimentation involving various means of disseminating slanderous discourse, as well as the testing of the power of authority to curb dissent.

[3] Slander (also known as libel, as no distinction between written and spoken words yet existed in law) referred in the period to words spoken with malicious intent before a third party which resulted in the demonstrable loss of reputation, credit or trade. In order for words to be slanderous, they had to be ‘actionable’ – that is, if one wanted to sue someone for saying them, one had to be able to demonstrate before the law that loss had been incurred as a result of the words spoken. If accused of slander, one could plead the truth of the words spoken (provided it could be proven), or else plead misinterpretation, with the principle of mitior sensus (literally, the least sense) inviting an increasing number of defendants to claim that their words had been intended without malice. This principle itself gained currency in the court of Common Pleas in the 1570s and 80s and sought to stem the flow of actions for slander by maintaining that ‘no action should lie if the words could be construed in a milder sense’ (Habermann 2003: 45). Sedition occurred when words spoken incited rebellion or ‘brought into hatred’ individuals of higher social standing, whether a breach of the peace was intended or not. It is tempting to think that these words had to be false in order to be slanderous, but in the period there was a hardening of legal opinion which resulted in the belief that true slanders against superiors were worse than false slanders, because they laid bare the faults of an ordered society and incited disorder. During the reign of Elizabeth, litigators and judges grappled with a variety of laws and statutes in punishing slander, and it was not until the subsequent reign that Edward Coke was to provide a definitive common law remedy (known as seditious, or criminal, libel), which took the opportunity to clarify ideas and autocratic beliefs about slander, sedition and libel, the proper prosecution of which had been the cause of vexation throughout the previous reign. Thus the 1605 birth of the common law crime of ‘seditious libel’ brought together the laws of slander and sedition, linking the speaking and writing of defamatory words, whether true or false, with disorder and malice. This has led Roger Manning (1980: 100-101) to recognise that, in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, ‘it was not necessary for seditious utterances or writings [against the reputations and/or actions, public or private, of public officials, magistrates and prelates] to be published, and if the facts alleged were true, that only made the offence worse, since a true slander was more likely to cause a breach of the peace than a public one.’

[4] In practice, the law and its agents were less than blind in their dispensing of justice. Plebeian disputes involving injurious words spoken between neighbours were treated by the book – truth was an acceptable defence and the rule of mitior sensus was encouraged by judges eager to stem the flow of frivolous lawsuits. In more serious cases, however, the terms ‘slander’ and ‘sedition’ became catch-all terms for any language deemed inappropriate, contentious, unlicensed or illicit, regardless of its intent or the actual losses incurred as a result of its reaching a third party. Further, authorities were keen to find and prosecute anyone involved in the production and dissemination of any material they deemed slanderous. As a result, original writers, publishers, owners of manuscripts or even those simply repeating words they had heard could find themselves at the mercy of what we might term ‘language laws’, which ranged from the statute of Scandalum Magnatum to felony statutes, proclamations against certain books, the crime of seditious libel and the tort of slander. Indeed, the statute of Scandalum Magnatum – which can be traced to 1275, and provided for the punishment of those who spread defamatory rumours about important personages of the state – was re-enacted with changes in the second year of Elizabeth’s reign (Milsom 1981: 388). John Baker (2002: 437) notes that the statute was designed to prevent discord between classes, ‘but the purpose of an action on the statute was clearly to vindicate the magnate’s name by recovering damages’.

[5] Particularly during the reign of Elizabeth, various techniques of deploying libellous and seditious speech (whilst simultaneously attempting to evade punishment) existed. Poets, critics, and those who sought to use transgressive language attempted to benefit from the slipperiness of the law. Some sought to adopt the rhetoric of counsel. Notoriously unsuccessful attempts to frame speech castigated as ‘slanderous’ as conciliar attempts to advise the government can be witnessed in John Stubbes’ The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf (1579), and A Treatise of Treasons Against Q. Elizabeth and the Croune of England (1572). Others invoked the classical provenance of satire. Here Alastair Bellany (2007b: 156) recognises John Donne’s appreciation of the form when handled correctly, and Pauline Croft (1995: 272) notes that the work of classical satirists was beginning to circulate around literary London. Aiding such efforts were illicit presses, with perhaps the most famous example of Elizabethan usage of illicit printing presses being the Martin Marprelate affair of 1588-9. Arguably, this celebrated episode provided lessons to would-be slanderers in the difficulties of maintaining presses outside the ambit of authorities, whilst also providing evidence that anonymity and pseudonymity (later key ingredients of verse libelling) were an invaluable means of eluding authority.

[6] Still others attempted to take advantage of the porous nature of censorship, and as a consequence the study of early modern censorship has long provided fertile ground for disagreement between scholars. Theories of censorship can be found in, amongst others, in the work of M. Lindsay Kaplan (1997); Janet Clare (1999); Cyndia Clegg (2004); Debora Shuger (2006); and Annabel Patterson (1984). Ultimately, what emerges is a sense of censorship being a loaded term that is largely unhelpful in understanding any distinct legal process or approach to legislating and controlling language. Further, it is one which no longer seems suitable in historicising events and outbreaks of transgressive language which can comprise the destruction by authors of their own work; the judicial trials of slanderous malefactors; the unknown excisions of texts by government officials; the conscious or unconscious regulation of spoken, written and printed language by those living in a litigious society; the state licensing (or non-licensing) of texts; and a slew of other procedural, cultural and legal processes.

[7] However, one method of evading legal reprisals for dissenting, slanderous or seditious speech that has gone largely unexplored is what we might begin to term ‘slanderisation’: the appropriation of outwardly innocent, licensed, or even ostensibly-edifying texts with slanderous or malicious intent, particularly at moments in which circumstances or political events can give them an unpleasant gloss. As a definition, one might think: ‘when good texts go bad’. The very innocence of the language of such texts allowed – in theory – their deployment to be defended on the simple, legal grounds that the speaker did not write them; they were neither actionable nor legally defamatory and they may even have been fully licensed by the state previously. Further, the use of slanderisation may be seen in various walks of Elizabethan life, with religious, musical and dramatic texts engaging with the use of seemingly innocuous compositions for scurrilous purposes.

[8] It is well-established that the early modern period coincided with a cultural, legal and historical fascination with precedent and the reading of contemporary events in existing texts, histories and legal cases – indeed, the common law itself was a justice system built on precedent, as Rosemary O’Day illustrates via her provision of a useful list of the means by which ‘precedent books’ were utilised in law teaching, with ‘one volume [used] for each major kind of case – case, trespass, slander, promises, nuisances, etc. (2014: 167-8).’ This led to what Johanna Rickman has described as a legal system that constituted a ‘contentious … ongoing cultural dialect’ rather than ‘a static background’ against which people lived their lives (2008: 15). Similarly, we know that there were anxieties surrounding the way in which texts might be received. One can turn, for example, to the notorious case of Fulke Greville’s manuscript Antony and Cleopatra (c1600-01). Written for a carefully limited, elite coterie, the play was nevertheless committed to the flames by Greville himself due to concerns raised

by the opinion of those few eyes which saw it, having some childish wantonness in them apt enough to be construed or strained to a personating of vices in the present governors and government. (Greville 1986 [1625]: 93)

Greville’s actions suggest, to Janet Clare a ‘climate of fear and caution’ (which is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the proliferation of slander with which the period coincided; if people were fearful of legal reprisals, it did not prevent them exercising their tongues, as the volume of litigation attests [Brooks 1998: 23-24; Clare 2014: 13]). Yet misinterpretation was not just a danger to be fearfully guarded against. It could be a welcome tool for slanderers who might rely on material being read with a contemporary, defamatory gloss, but who could then hope to use ‘misinterpretation’ as a mean of deflecting accusations of slander. Such individuals could simply place blame, as Greville more ingenuously did, on the wicked minds of the third party: the hearers. It is thus useful to shift our focus from the interpretation – or misinterpretation – of texts to those who took advantage of plurality of interpretation with the knowledge that audiences would not take things in mitior sensus. Significant also is what David Cressy (2010: 42) recognises as the tendency of early modern readers and listeners to believe libellous words; and it is a notion supported by one anonymous commentator on the Martin Marprelate affair, who remarked somewhat disdainfully that Martin’s ‘seditious libels made easy way into the hartes of the vulgar [because such people] were apt to entertaine matter of Noveltie especiallie if it have a show of restraining the authoritie of their Superiours’ (Black 2008: xxxii). Thus, slanderers or those with seditious intent might not have written the words they recited, nor even ‘caused them to be written’ (as was an ancillary accusation often levelled against those accused of reciting defamatory language), and this offers us the possibility of identifying a useful strategy of evasion. But have we evidence for this strategy being employed?

[9] The state church and its officials were masters of defining slander and sedition through their legal authority over language and their ecclesiastical right to condemn and punish slanders which pertained to moral and spiritual offences. However, this mastery extended to their slanderisation of Biblical texts in the pursuit of religious and political goals. Certainly this strategy was famously employed in early modern Scotland, where tensions between Church and monarch were more sharply drawn, particularly during the tenure of John Knox. Queen Mary’s censure-ship did not bear fruit, but her short-lived husband Henry Stuart had slightly more success in forbidding the cleric from preaching for fifteen days following a 1565 sermon that likened the monarchs to Ahab and Jezebel. In England, a 1569 sermon by the clergyman Edward Dering, who had been disgraced for his provocative preaching in the past, began with his casting the blame for his disgrace on ‘the slanderous tongues of many envious men’, before going on to preach the necessity of ‘the plain law of the Lord’. ‘This law’, Dering asserts, he ‘knows not how your Majesty shall interpret, because I know not your spirit’ (Dering 1971 [1569-70]: 139). The language is breathtakingly disingenuous; Dering’s attempt to lay blame for any potentially malicious interpretation of his allusions on the listener – the queen – is obvious. As he expounds vociferously on the Biblical precedents of ‘David disallowing wicked men in his house and Asa putting down idols’, we can see in practice a preacher simultaneously deflecting accusations of attacking the queen whilst tacitly inviting consideration of religious reform and professing not to know what constructions might be put upon his language. It is in such performances that we see in practice what M. Lindsay Kaplan recognises as the peculiar ‘boomerang effect’ of slander (Kaplan 1997: 90).

[10] This process of appropriating what is in this case an unimpeachably upright text with the express purpose of criticising existing policy was one which was understood by early modern English clergymen. However, it would be dangerous to overestimate the success of Dering’s strategy; as he notes in his sermon, he has ‘heard of how much your highness misliked of me’ (Dering 1971 [1569-70]: 140). In the absence of a realistic ability to ban or censor particular religious texts at impolitic moments, the disfavour of the queen might instead be considered a singular politico-religious indication of what was and was not condoned.

[11] Certainly Queen Elizabeth was ever apt to remind her preachers that they were her subjects. Peter McCullough recounts in particular the 1565 sermon of Alexander Nowell (against religious images), to which Elizabeth bluntly announced, ‘do not talk about that’ (1998: 47). Nowell attempted to continue his sermon, resulting in further interruption from the queen, who instructed him to ‘leave that – it has nothing to do with your subject and is now threadbare’. McCullough notes also the 1579 incident in which the queen pointedly turned her back on the pulpit when a preacher launched into a sermon attacking her mooted match with the Duc d’Alençon. Certainly, in a system in which was encoded a network of patronage and favour, those who sought preferment in public office could thus take their cue from royal reactions to particular textual allusions. As a consequence, we might consider the Elizabethan approach to ‘slanderised’ religious text as not censorship, but censure-ship. Governmental attitudes to what was and was not permissible did not have to be enforced by legal means or explicit diktats, but could rather be expressed through informal channels. Here was not brazen nonconformity, but resistance and criticism voiced in the language of conformity and expressed in the guise of wholesome religious texts, the preaching of which was one of the cornerstones of the Elizabethan religious settlement.

[12] Church figures’ deployment of otherwise acceptable texts in a deliberately provocative manner (and their subsequent ‘censure-ship’) do not, however, provide the only examples of the use of and reaction to slanderisation. In her comprehensive overview of the circulation of ballads in early modern England (2014), Jenni Hyde has recognised the extent to which the Tudor regime viewed the seductive language and attractive tunes employed by ballads as a potential menace. Interestingly, Hyde also recounts the case of a particular ballad’s seditious afterlife. ‘The Hunt is Up’ was a popular tune at the centre of court life during Henry VIII’s reign, with the earliest form of the text, attributed to William Gray, reading:

The hunt is up, the hunt is up,
And it is a well nigh day;
And Harry our king has gone hunting,
To bring his deer to bay.
(Gray 1533: 60)

Although the text appears fairly innocuous, the melody was appropriated by one John Hogon during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537, with lyrics added that complained ‘the masters of arte and doctors of dyvynyte / have brought the realme owght of good unite’ (Hyde 2014: 233). As Chappell and Macfarren recognise, Hogon’s alleged crime was failing to comply with a 1533 proclamation, which was issued ‘to suppress fond books, ballads, rhymes, and other lewd treatises in the English tongue’, by ‘singing with a crowd or a fyddyll’ a political song to that tune (1859: 60). Chappell and Macfarren’s study of the ballad’s history is illuminating. In addition to the legal circumstances of its 1537 appropriation by Hogon, the tune is also noted as being referred to as a good one for dancing in the Complaynt of Scotland (1549) and as having a number of parodic and theatrical afterlives. More pertinently, however, Chappell and Macfarren recognise that in the Hogon episode, ‘some of the words are inserted in the information [i.e. the Privy Council records], but they were taken down from the recitation and not given as verse’. The hesitance to proliferate slanderous material, even in the confines of the courtroom, can be found also in the proceedings of the Star Chamber. In a 1596 case, the Lord Keeper lamented that one libeller ‘made this Court (of such authority and state that [the Lord Keeper had] not heard nor read of the like in the world) an instrument to publish [and] record his blasphemies, and to have the nobles of the land from her Ma[jes]ties side, vpon whose sacred person they showlde attend, to hear his slanders and libels’ Ultimately, he ordered the depositions ‘to be withdrawn from the Courte’ (Hawarde, Reportes: 55).

[13] Evidently, ballads provided a genre capable of being mutated, repackaged and reworded according to the intentions of those spreading them. The slanderisation of this curiously universal genre therefore provides us with evidence that it was not just the original language of innocent texts that could prove a handy tool for those wishing to slander enemies and sow sedition, but musical arrangements and form. As Hyde further notes, ballads thus constitute ‘a sophisticated form of knowingness [that] could, on occasion, be created by … tune alone (2014: 237).’ It is no great leap to assume that a tune known for its associations with the royal court would, when misused, invite mocking criticism of the court itself. Popular melodies could therefore become laden with meaning and cultural associations, and that meaning could be manipulated via alteration of lyrics or usage in incongruous or sensitive situations. As Peter Lake and Steve Pincus remind us, ‘there were emerging protocols to be observed when having recourse to the politics of popularity, but they remained hazy and ill defined, and it was always horribly easy to fall over the edge into sedition’ (2007: 7). Hogon, in his appropriation of a popular melody in order to take advantage of its cultural associations, did not fall over the edge, but willingly leapt.

[14] In the case of ‘The Hunt is Up’, Hogon performed his version of the ballad in the homes of Robert Frances, John Kettleburgh and John Harlen, relying on the tune’s royal provenance to encourage criticism of Henry’s policies. However, his audience recognised his attempt at deliberately slanderising the popular tune and reported him to their local authorities. The men in his rural audience claimed to be unable to understand some of the veiled references in the song, and those references ‘served as protection for both parties: Hogon’s words did not become unmistakably seditious until they were explained and the Norfolk men could not be accused of troublemaking if they had not understood the meaning of the song without that elucidation’ (Hyde 2014: 234). The slanderisation of a musical piece, at least on this occasion, was confounded by the unwillingness of the audience to become complicit in enjoying the seditious overtones of its topical deployment. But nevertheless they were sufficiently aware of the manipulation of the tune to report it, and investigators were sufficiently aware of the propensity for musical ballads to have political repercussions to take action. As a method of resistance and dissent, slanderisation was, we might conclude, unsuccessful – but only insofar as Hogon had the misfortune of performing his slanderised version of ‘The Hunt is Up’ before an unreceptive audience.

[15] Yet the very fact that a musical piece – a fairly simple tune – could provide those looking to disseminate slanderous and seditious language with a vehicle is one which requires further consideration, for echoes of Hogon’s strategy can be found on the popular stage. In the anonymously-authored Thomas of Woodstock, the tendency of authorities to fret about the power of music in circulating dangerous speech is, seemingly, held up to ridicule. Although it has been argued that the play postdates Shakespeare, it is often speculated as being a source for Shakespeare’s Richard II (MacDonald P. Jackson: 2002). Central to the plot is the depiction of events in England prior to the murder of Richard’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, and the play includes the corrupt machinations of the king’s, favourite, Lord Chief Justice Tresilian. As Tresilian’s paranoia and avarice grow in inverse proportion to the civil liberties of the king’s subjects, Richard’s tyranny – as, typically, refracted through Tresilian – is highlighted in the actions of the favourite’s subordinates:

Nimble: Close again Master Bailiff, he comes another whisperer, I see by some – oh villain, he whistles treason! I’ll lay hold of him myself.

Whistler: Out alas, what do ye mean sir?

Nimble: A rank traitor Master Bailiff. Lay hold on him, for he has most erroneously and rebelliously whistled treason.

Whistler: Whistled treason! Alas sir, how can that be?

Bailiff: Very easily sir. There’s a piece of treason that flies up and down the country in the likeness of a ballad, and this being the very tune of it thou hast whistled treason.

Whistler: Alas sir, ye know I spake not a word.

Nimble: That’s all one: if any man whistles treason ‘tis as ill as speaking it. Mark me Master Bailiff, the bird whistles that cannot speak, and [yet] there be birds in a manner that can speak too: your raven will call ye [rascal], your crow will call ye knave, Master Bailiff. Ergo, he that can whistle can speak, and therefore this fellow hath both spoke and whistled treason.
(Thomas of Woodstock 2002, III.iii.1685-1701)

To Sandra Clark, this exchange depicts a police state under Richard II’s rule; to Irving Ribner, it underscores ‘the corruption of law … [and] the utter perversion of order in the tyranny of Tresilian and his men’ (2007: 97; 2005: 137). Neither reading, however, situates the text within its contemporary framework. The alacrity with which Nimble and the Bailiff are quick to identify the Whistler’s melody as treasonous, and in particular as flying ‘up and down the country in the likeness of a ballad’ would likely have struck Elizabethan audiences as entirely plausible, even if laughable. The Whistler’s protestations, too, take on a different complexion given what we know about slanderisation. Although his defence seems reasonable, it is just as possible that the character invites audiences – familiar with the power of melodies to carry seditious overtones – to consider whether he is really as uncomprehending as he claims. Of course, even if he is entirely innocent of the knowledge of the treasonous gloss attached to his tune, the problem faced by authorities remains: how can dissent be controlled when slanderisation brings with it plausible deniability? With this understanding, what seems like a caustic depiction of Richard II’s England actually encourages comparison with contemporary attempts to control discourse. If the ostensibly Plantagenet desire to find criminal activity in the whistling of a tune is thus held to be a ‘perversion of order’, then so too is the Tudor response to the slanderisation of ballads seen in the John Hogon episode.

[16] Adding weight to the notion that the Whistler’s defence is purposefully ambiguous is the preceding arrest of a Schoolmaster for writing a libel in verse against Tresilian. The illiterate bailiff, despite the Schoolmaster’s witty attempt at defending himself for his libel, is as quick to hear ‘the most shameful treason’ (III.iii.1671-2) as he is when he hears the ‘treasonous’ whistling. A number of issues arise from the zealous efforts of Nimble and the Bailiff. Firstly, as the Schoolmaster is guilty, a shadow is thrown over the Whistler’s use of a tune recognisable as seditious. The Whistler’s defence – that he had lost his calves and mistook the Bailiff and Nimble for them – is dubious, as is the apparent coincidence that he would chance upon the tune of a ballad which even the illiterate Bailiff recognises as having acquired seditious overtones.

[17] From Schoolmaster to cowherd, the willingness to give voice to and immediately deny dissent makes, as the Bailiff states, dangerous speech likely to fly ‘up and down the country’. It will also be noted that the Schoolmaster is engaged in reciting his railing rhyme (which he acknowledges as ‘little better than libels’ [III.iii.1630) to his serving man, with the suggestion thus made the lower orders are as eager to learn dangerous speech as their masters are to compose it. But here we must also recognise resonances of what Hyde has described as the ubiquity of the ballad as ‘experienced throughout society in homes and on the street, in cottages and at court, in taverns and at the theatre’ (2014: 34). The Schoolmaster’s use of unambiguous libel (despite his specious claims to the contrary) throws into doubt the protestations of ignorance by the whistling cowherd. Although the Bailiff, as a representative of authority, is portrayed as an illiterate buffoon, his instinctive willingness to ‘hear’ treason in the poetic words and tunes of others is less a mark of social perversion than an aggressively anxious reaction to a real problem. If the Whistler is innocent, he is damned not by the Bailiff and Nimble alone, but by the Schoolmaster’s willingness to libel authority and thus excite the instincts of autocrats; if he is guilty, his denial is plausible and audiences are invited to sympathise with a figure knowingly engaged in slanderising a text. Neither libelling nor overly zealous state responses to libelling emerge from the play as clear and unproblematic processes. If the England of Thomas of Woodstock is a police state, then it is a remarkably familiar one, containing many of the tensions between willing (and chancing) dissenters and frustrated, somewhat oversensitive authorities recognisable in the late-Tudor state. More likely, however, the humour of the scene suggests less a strictly authoritarian state (and less still Janet Clare’s ‘climate of fear and caution’), than a faintly ridiculous game of negotiation and exchange between dissenters and authorities, with deniability and stiff-necked refusal to accept deniability at loggerheads, especially during moments of crisis. If one recognises a climate of fear and caution in the play’s treatment of the Schoolmaster and the Whistler, it is on the part of the Bailiff and Nimble rather than the two slander-peddling citizens.

[18] Through its depiction of the arrests (and protests) of the composer of a libel and the whistler of a tune, Thomas of Woodstock illustrates the limitations of both verbal and melodic transmission of transgressive sentiments. As long as one made impermissible sounds – or, rather, words or noises which could be interpreted as slanderous or seditious – the potential existed for authorities to make an association with libellous or even treasonous activity. Yet music and verse were, quite clearly, effective (and popular, if tunes or words gained currency) ways of dissenting. As a consequence, it is perhaps unsurprising that the anonymous, handwritten verse libel became a means of voicing dissent without using one’s voice in the decades following the play’s composition.

[19] As Greg Walker and Henry James have noted, theatregoers were particularly apt to view events on the stage as having contemporary resonances (1995: 109-121). Furthermore, responding to Annabel Patterson’s study of censorship, interpretation and the relationship between poets and the state, Richard Dutton has noted that governments could not hope to regulate what people would think or link to a text to at any given moment (2000: xv). However, the corollary of this is that neither could malicious slanderers and seditionists, whose reliance on timeliness, topicality and unpredictable audience reception underpinned their opportunistic borrowing of texts. Nevertheless, what authorities could and did do was to seek to find the intent behind words recited at moments at which they judged them to become laden with unacceptable or potentially dangerous meaning. Slanderisation thus became an unstable, almost paradoxical process: the texts appropriated derived their scurrilous gloss from fleeting events, and yet fleeting events are what instigated authoritarian crackdowns on literary expression.

[20] This certainly seems to have been the rationale behind the Earl of Essex’s famous commissioning of Richard II’s performance immediately prior to his abortive rebellion in 1601. The play’s subject matter had been burdened with a history of contention, and interesting questions arise here about the censorship of non-dramatic historical works, and the extent to which this implies that early modern audiences were likely to consider history as analogous to contemporary events. Licensed historical texts could provide ready-made, popular conduits for commenting subversively on events, in essence acting as scripts which invited slanderisation. We should therefore not be surprised to find that more mechanised state censorship was occasionally used in the publication of historical material. Indeed, Cyndia Clegg (2014) provides a useful history of the (rather haphazard) censorship of Holinshed’s Chronicles, which is itself accepted as a source for Shakespeare’s Richard II. Yet the play itself had been fully licensed and entered into the Stationer’s Register in 1597; yet its performance on the eve of an uprising against the sovereign saw the players brought before the Privy Council for questioning. The fact that the company was soon released and apparently swiftly restored to royal favour is particularly interesting, raising as it does issues concerning the differing intent behind the performers and the commissioners of the production. Evidently, the inherent legality of the text, combined with the fact that the players recited it without malicious intent on their part, may have been sufficient for investigators to conclude that the actors’ performance of a text which had been in legal circulation for decades be taken in mitior sensus. The use of the legal rule applied in slander cases is deliberate. Censorship of the play had evidently failed to prevent its staging, and the laws of slander and libel did not apply to actors innocently reciting non-actionable words which had previously been endorsed by the state. Yet the fact that they were interrogated and their actions open to authoritarian scrutiny prevents us from concluding that the slanderisation of the text – at least on the part of Essex and his followers, who were the seditionists – proved successful.

[21] Interestingly, it might be argued that Shakespeare and his company were aware that the performance of play texts and their multiplicity of interpretations – whether innocent or subversive – was something to be recognised and guarded against. Casting blame for malicious interpretation on the interpreters rather than the speakers or writers was an invaluable, even a playful strategy. Puck’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides us with ratification of this, as he defends insubstantial, formless and motiveless actors.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue
(Shakespeare 1979 [1595], V.i.417-427)

In particular, we might note the subtle turning of blame for any offence on the ‘slumbering’ audiences, and Puck’s eagerness to escape the ‘serpent’s tongue’ – an image not far divorced from the tongues of evil-minded, slanderous misinterpreters, who were invariably conceptualised as being dangerously venomous. The perception of slander as a ‘poison’ was an enduring trope. Commentators such as Thomas Adams were apt to consider slander as a form of oral poison, which passed through the ear and corrupted the soul. Of more pressing concern was the notion that the audience could be ‘implicated in [a slanderous text’s] immorality’ (Bellany 2007b: 151). A hissing, hostile, offended audience thus makes itself the venomous slanderer – if, of course, we believe that Puck is honest and innocent of malicious intent. At any rate, Shakespeare recognised that theatrical audiences had the power to react negatively, and defence against negative reaction was required by those whose words – and, as we have seen, even whose use of music – could be construed in an actionable or otherwise scurrilous sense. Again we can identify a method of defence as being to deftly cast blame for slanderous interpretation on those who constructed it; but once again the slanderer finds himself in the position of having to make such a defence and ‘mend’ the suddenly hostile relationship between actor and audience. Once again, speaking publicly places power in the hands of the hearer, even if the speaker has a strategy in place to either ‘make amends’ or blame the hearer for a negative reception.

[22] Ultimately, these examples indicate that slanderisation was not, as it might be tempting to imagine, a safe or reliable way of evading either censorship or slander and sedition accusations, but it was certainly tested out despite the unpredictability of its reception. Thus we might consider the invitation for audiences to read defamatory, seditious and topical allusions to their contemporaries one of several methods tried prior to the introduction of the free press. Slanderisation failed if one could not trust one’s audience to be complicit and refrain from forcing an explanation of the meaning behind the words spoken. Nevertheless, the process of deploying outwardly innocuous texts with scurrilous intent erodes any comfortable understanding of censorship as an active programme focused on preventing unquestionably provocative or actionable speech. All texts – be they religious, literary or musical – have afterlives which may involve unexpected subversion for scurrilous or slanderous purposes – and this has implications for studies of censorship, legal development and literary history.

[23] Thus, we might return to Arthur Wilson’s recognition of the growth of verse libels and their indication of a subversive link between poetry and slanderous language. Having now witnessed the rather unreliable appropriation of innocent texts (religious, dramatic and musical) and their potentially hostile reception, it is clear that slanderisation was a method tested by early modern malcontents, and found lacking. As a result, we can glimpse another paving stone in the road to the popular Stuart verse libel. Yet it must be noted that these cases of singers, clergymen and players being caught or questioned are generally isolated or at least remarkable cases, usually due to their textual deployment reaching hostile audiences or the attention of authorities (which was obviously the point, particularly in the case of religious sermons, the subversive glosses of which were intended to inspire changes in religious policy). What we cannot know is how widespread this practice of slanderisation was at moments of political stability; bureaucratic inefficiency; legal relaxation; when audiences simply failed to interpret things in scurrilous ways; or even when they did but were sympathetic, and the intended double-meanings were kept quiet.

[24] Having thus recognised slanderisation as a process, we might ask a number of questions. Were innocent songs sung at politically-sensitive times in rural towns, with audiences secretly enjoying the naughty pleasure of interpreting them as slanderous? Were Biblical allusions made against the queen in prophesyings and sermons which have not yet been scrutinised with a view to assessing their potential scurrility? Were plays performed which mocked specific figures and events which are now obscure to us, and which went either unnoticed or unpunished? The answers to these questions are elusive. Yet it is nevertheless evident that although the process of slanderisation is recognisable from those moments in which it failed, this does not preclude it having been used successfully in ways which would, by virtue of that success, be unlikely to come to our attention via court records, governmental investigations or reports of royal displeasure. What these episodes do tell us is that using existing texts in order to invite slanderous interpretation was a risky business, and though it offered the potential avenue of innocent intent and not being the original author, neither were robust safeguards against censure-ship or intermittent authoritarianism. As long as one used one vocalised material, there were means by which authorities could apportion blame and punishment if that material found itself taking on a dark complexion.

[25] In order to build a fuller picture of the period’s relationship with transgressive language, it is crucial that scholars of early modern slander and censorship widen their scope of study beyond obviously slanderous and seditious texts and pay greater attention to the misuse of licit and innocuous texts – and even musical arrangements – for slanderous and seditious purposes. In a culture accustomed to the sensitivity of language and the legal repercussions of deploying explicitly proscripted speech and writing, it is necessary to consider the ways in which shifting and evolving legal and political circumstances could turn good language bad, as well as the opportunities afforded to individuals in twisting (or inviting alternative interpretations of) the meanings of innocent, licensed texts.

University of Strathclyde


Baker, John H. 2002. An Introduction to Legal History, 4th Edition (Edinburgh: Butterworths)

Bellany, Alastair. 2007a. ‘Railing Rhymes Revisited: Libels, Scandals, and Early Stuart Politics’, History Compass, 5/4, 1136-79.

Bellany, Alastair. 2007b. ‘The embarrassment of libels: perceptions and representations of verse libelling in early Stuart England’ in P. Lake and S. Pincus (Eds.) The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Black, Joseph L. 2008. The Martin Marprelate Tracts: A Modernised and Annotated Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Brooks, Christopher W. 1998. Lawyers, Litigation and English Society Since 1450 (London: Hambledon Press)

Chappell, William, and Macfarren, George A. 1859. The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time: A History of the Ancient Songs, Ballads, and of the Dance Tunes of England, with Numerous Anecdotes and Entire Ballads and a Short Account of the Minstrels, Volume I (London: Chappell and Co)

Clare, Janet. 1990. ‘The Censorship of the Deposition Scene in Richard II’, The Review of English Studies, 41 (161), 89-94

Clare, Janet. 1999. Art Made Tongue-Tied By Authority: Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatic Censorship (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Clare, Janet. 2014. ‘“Of Seditions and Troubles”: Censorship and the Late Elizabethan Crisis’ in G. Iannaccaro & G. Iamartino (eds.) Enforcing and Eluding Censorship: British and Anglo-Italian Perspectives (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

Clark, S. 2007. Renaissance Drama. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Clegg, Cyndia S. 2004. Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Clegg, Cyndia S. 2014. ‘Censorship and Propaganda’ in S. Frye and N. Jones (eds.) The Elizabethan World (Abingdon: Routledge)

Corbin, P. & Sedge, D. (eds.) 2002. Thomas of Woodstock or Richard II, Part One (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Cressy, David. 2010. Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Croft, Pauline. 1995. ‘Libels, popular literacy and public opinion in early modern England’, Historical Research, 167 (68), 266-85

Dering, Edward. 1971 [1569-70]. ‘A Sermon Preached Before the Queen’s Majesty the 25th Day of February’ in L. J. Trinterud (ed.) Elizabethan Puritanism (New York: Oxford University Press)

Gray, William. 1533 [1859]. ‘The Hunt is Up’ in William Chappell & George A. Macfarren (eds.) The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time: A History of the Ancient Songs, Ballads, and of the Dance Tunes of England, with Numerous Anecdotes and Entire Ballads and a Short Account of the Minstrels, Volume I (London: Chappell and Co)

Greville, Fulke. 1986 [1625]. A Dedication to Sir Philip Sidney in J. Gouws (ed.) The Prose Works of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (Oxford: Claredon Press)

Habermann, Ina. 2003. Staging Slander and Gender in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate)

Hawarde, John. 1894. Les Reportes Del Cases in Camera Stellata, 1593-1609. From the Original Ms. of John Hawarde. ed. by William Paley Baildon (London: Priv. print [by Spottiswoode & co.])

Hyde, Jenni. 2014. Mid-Tudor Ballads: Music, Words and Context (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Manchester)

Jackson, MacDonald P. 2001. ‘Shakespeare’s Richard II and the Anonymous Thomas of WoodstockMedieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 14: 17–65

Kaplan, M. Lindsay. 1997. The Culture of Slander in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lake, Peter, and Pincus, Steven. 2007. The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Manning, Roger B. 1980. ‘The Origins of the Doctrine of Sedition’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned With British Studies, 12, (2), 99-121

McCullough, Peter. 1998. Sermons at Court: Politics and Religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean Preaching (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Milsom, Stroud Francis Charles. 1981. Historical Foundations of the Common Law. London: Butterworths.

O’Day, Rosemary. 2014. The Professions in Early Modern England, 1450-1800: Servants of the Commonweal (London: Routledge)

Patterson, Annabel. 1984. Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing in Early Modern England (London: The University of Wisconsin Press)

Ribner, Irving. 2005 [1965]. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London: Routledge)

Rickman, Johanna. 2008. Love, Lust and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility (Aldershot: Ashgate)

Shakespeare, William. 1979 [1595]. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ed. by Harold F. Brooks (London: Arden)

Shuger, Debora. 2006. Censorship & Cultural Sensibility: The Regulation of Language in Tudor-Stuart England (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Press)

Walker, Greg, and James, Henry. 1995. ‘The Politics of Gorboduc’, The English Historical Review, 110 (435), 109-121

Wilson, Arthur. 1653. The History of Great Britain, Being the Life and Reign of King James I (London: Richard Lowndes)

The Legacy of the Will of Henry VIII in John Webster’s Sir Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody

The Legacy of the Will of Henry VIII in John Webster’s Sir Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody

Steven Veerapen

[1] A collaborative play by Webster, Dekker, Heywood, Smith, and Chettle — likely pieced together from the lost play Lady Jane and a putative sequel, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1601-2, printed in 1607, STC 6537) — reflects on the period of political instability following the deaths, in relatively rapid succession, of Henry VIII and Edward VI (Hoy 1980: 311).[1] This was an instability which was in no small part exacerbated by the divergence between Henry’s will and Edward’s wishes with regard to the bequest of the kingdom. Similarly, Heywood’s own 1604-5 play, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (Part I) (printed 1605, STC 13328), made use of roughly contemporaneous material whilst chronicling the reign of the infamous Mary I and her fraught relationship with the popular, younger Elizabeth. Although critics have been hesitant to identify the hand of Heywood in Sir Thomas Wyatt, both plays also share discrete passages of stark similarity, notably in the accession speeches of Mary (Hoy 1980: 333-5). Further, a more general dedication to theatrical pageantry is evident in both plays’ depictions of royal ceremonial. This is, of course, unsurprising, given that both Sir Thomas Wyatt and If You Know Not Me dramatize the downfall of one sovereign and the accession of another, each complicated by the lack of a direct heir. As a result, both also share thematic concerns regarding the ways in which a monarch’s testamentary will, and its various legal ramifications, operated in a society in which debates around succession were reignited by Elizabeth’s advanced age and the accession of her Scottish-born cousin, James VI and I. The earlier Tudor succession crises, therefore, provided the playwrights with a ready means of engaging with the looming, and then newfound, arrival of a foreign monarch allegedly barred by a testamentary will but chosen by providence, apparent from historical circumstance and tacitly accepted by Queen and council.

[2] The notion of the will was, to a monarch, a means not only of distributing alms, goods and chattels, but — uniquely in the case of Henry VIII — of personally stipulating successors to whom the kingdom was to be bequeathed. The revolutionary nature of this step must not be underestimated. Commenting on Henry’s various Acts of Succession — unprecedented in the annals of English monarchical history — Alice Hunt has observed that the willing of the throne to nominated heirs rather than natural successors ‘brought the legitimacy of English kings and queens under authority of parliament’ (Hunt 2009: 560). More pointedly for the period, the combined authority of monarch and Privy Council proved instrumental in settling and securing thorny succession questions. Certainly, this was the case throughout Henry’s chequered history of nominating and barring his offspring from the succession, which met with little — if any — parliamentary demur. His first Act of Succession (1533) removed his eldest daughter from the succession; his second Act of 1536 bastardised Elizabeth; and his third and final Act of 1543 served to settle the throne on Prince Edward and his putative heirs, with any future children with Queen Katherine preceding the lines of Mary and Elizabeth. Henry’s will (1546) thus acted as a confirmation of his 1543 Act of Succession, which reinstated his daughters as rightful heirs whilst retaining their illegitimate status. Given the lack of fecundity amongst Henry’s children, as well as the fact that his colourful marital history ensured that two of those children remained tainted by bastardy, it is unsurprising that late Elizabethan and early Jacobean playwrights engaged with questions regarding the will of the council in matters of royal succession. Given Henry’s actions as well as historical circumstance, it was inevitable that the efficacy of royal wills would also come under the theatrical lens as, typically, the issues, arguments and debates of the day found their way on to the popular stage. Indeed, with the decline of Elizabeth and the accession of James I, the ‘fundamental incongruities’ exposed by the late monarch’s meddling with the accepted norms of English succession were once more brought to the fore (Ives 2009: 144).

[3] According to the will of Henry VIII the succession was to rest – should Edward die without issue – on the lines of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth respectively. Understandably, of course, Henry had hopes of Edward’s provision of an heir, and so direct bequests to his daughters focused on financial and material provisions aimed at their securing husbands. Edward’s wishes — bolstered by his Devise for the Succession (1553) — broke entirely with his father’s will and last succession Act by calling for the exclusion of his sisters in favour of his Protestant cousins, the Grey sisters (of whom Jane would meet her death under Mary I, whilst Mary and Katherine would continue to be a source of anxiety and annoyance for the childless Elizabeth). It will be noted also that in both Henry’s will and Edward’s Devise, however, no provision was made for the descendants of Henry’s sister, Margaret, Queen of Scotland (and great-grandmother of the future James VI and I).

[4] Assessing the question of the Elizabethan succession as it was debated during the 1560s, Mortimer Levine notes that Henry definitively ‘set aside’ the Stuarts in his will. It was a step which led to a politically and religiously charged war of words waged in manuscript and print between those who supported his actions and those who questioned his legal right to dismiss the superior claim of the Stuarts in favour of the Suffolks (Levine 1966: 158). Henry’s reasons for doing so continue to provide fodder for interesting — if ultimately fruitless — historical speculation. Chief amongst the plausible motivations were Henry’s belief in the future marriage of Mary Stuart and Edward (a match which would have united the two British crowns under English domination); his fondness for the Suffolks; a national contempt for the Scots; and the common law rule against alien inheritance, derived from a 1351 statute against foreign-born individuals inheriting English property (Levine 1966: 159).

[5] At any rate, within a generation of Henry’s death, the pens of pro-Stuart writers scrabbled furiously in an attempt to prove the alleged illegality of the will. Arguments ranged from the King having ‘no right’ to exclude the succession of his older sister, Margaret, to the complicated interpretation of the common law rule of inheritance as it applied to the crown (Smith 1962: 21). So particular were the arguments that doubts were even raised as to the whether or not the King had used his own hand or a dry stamp in signing the will. The latter, it was argued, would have compromised Henry’s legal right to fix the succession via ‘a will signed in his most gracious hand’ (Smith 1962: 22). Undoubtedly, the succession provisions of the will were of great import in the early Elizabethan period, during which Mary Stuart’s advocates found it imperative to challenge their validity. However, as Anne McLaren recognises, the accession of James I to the throne ‘reintroduced a question…that came to dominate political discourse in the seventeenth century: whether Stewart kings were or could be godly kings of England’ (McLaren 2002: 290). Given that the 1603 accession of James (the only likely candidate for the throne, who was supported by the council, and in whom ‘blood, Protestantism and virility combined’) was a direct refutation of Henry’s will, it is small wonder that dramatists found in the legacy of the Tudor king’s will fertile ground in which to cultivate their exploration of the role of a deceased monarch’s will, its legal interpretations, and the dangerous outcome of a thorny and contested succession (McLaren 2002: 290).

[6] Sir Thomas Wyatt opens with self-interested noblemen and parents of Jane Grey and her husband, Suffolk and Northumberland, discoursing on the imminent death of Edward VI, with attention focused on the problem of confirming the king’s will. The exchange provides an early indication that the absolute power of the king will cease with his death. It is into this discussion that Wyatt intrudes, voracious in his allegiance to Henry VIII. Condemning the self-interested lack of constancy inherent in Northumberland and Suffolk’s dismissal of Henry’s wishes in favour of Edward’s ‘will’ (historically, his Devise), he declares

It boots me not to stay,
When in this land rebellion bears such sway.
God’s will, a court! ‘tis changed
Since noble Henry’s days.
You have set your hands unto a will:
A will you well may call it:
So wills Northumberland, so wills great Suffolk,
Against God’s will, to wrong those princely maids.
(Webster and Dekker 1953 [1607]: I.i.23-30)

The play on the notion of ‘will’ as it pertains to a document stipulating the wishes of the deceased (collapsed with God’s will when the deceased was King Henry) and the ‘will’ as it pertains to the wishes and desires (and subsequent manipulations) of the living monarch and his council is obvious. Castigating Suffolk and Northumberland for setting their hands unto ‘a will’ (Edward’s Devise), which is as much a product of their own willing desire to elevate their children to power, Wyatt’s contemptuous remark, ‘a will you well may call it’ is two-fold. In addition to drawing attention to the partisan willingness of the corrupt councillors, it also deftly brings into relief the Godly will of the deceased Henry and the so-called will of Edward, driven by Northumberland and Suffolk. It is this contrast between the testamentary will of the dead and the living will of those in power (with the added complication of the latter entailing the state) which drives the action of the play. Indeed, it will be noted that central to Wyatt’s rhetoric is the exposure of Edward’s Devise as a fraudulent, rebellious and invalid attempt by corrupt, living council members to seize power through spurious legal means.

[7] Certainly, the personalities involved in the framing of the will remain a source of scholarly interest, with the historical and legal detective work of J. L. McIntosh revealing the covert practices employed by the Edwardian council (McIntosh 2008: 39). Though it should have been a sacrosanct document, McIntosh notes the attempts by the regency council to undo the provisions of Henry’s will in the interests of assuming full regal authority. It was, in effect, ‘legal fraud’ perpetuated in order to remove the threat of Henry’s daughters: particularly Mary, who was viewed by the international Catholic community as the true heir, in addition to being part of a powerful female network, a focus of factional discontent with the regency regime, and a patron of considerable East Anglian influence (from which her later army against Jane Grey was to be formed). Although historian Eric Ives has convincingly argued that Edward (in slavishly following the precedent of his father in nominating heirs to the throne) is likely to have been acting under his own authority and intent, the fact remains the Devise was never sanctioned by parliament and thus lacked the authority and legality which was attached to Henry’s will (Ives 2009: 142). Indeed, as Levine notes, ‘when Edward ordered his judges and law officers to draw up a will along the lines of the Devise, they protested that it was “directly against the Act of Succession (1543), which was an Act of Parliament which would not be taken away by no such device”’ (Levine 1966: 150). Consequently, doubts regarding the document’s legitimacy and authorship were not only familiar to sixteenth and seventeenth-century commentators, but have echoed through the centuries. Furthermore, Webster and Dekker’s Wyatt lays claim to the support of divine authority in his argument, as he collapses the will of God (‘Against God’s will, to wrong those princely maids’) with the will of Henry VIII, God’s former deputy on earth. Crucially, it must be noted that Wyatt does not directly attack the Devise of Edward (a ‘will’, as he terms it, ‘extorted from a child’) but the actions of those officials whom he contends are responsible for its creation. It is a critical point for one, such as Wyatt, whose allegiance is predicated on the right of kings (Webster and Dekker 1953: I.vi.75-6).

[8] Adding further legal weight to his position, Wyatt later reprimands his peers in the council:

You were sworn before to a man’s will,
And not a will alone,
But strengthened by an act of Parliament
(Webster and Dekker 1953 [1607]: I.vi. 82-4)

By drawing on Henry VIII’s Third Succession Act (1543), later bolstered by 1547’s Treason Act (which made it a capital offence to interrupt Henry’s established line of succession), Wyatt therefore calls into question the legality of Edward’s Devise, and in so doing successfully argues for the instatement of Mary as Queen.

[9] It must be remembered, however, that the historical Edward’s Devise For the Succession followed Henry’s own precedent in ‘nominating and excluding heirs of his own volition, independently of traditional rules of descent’, a fact with which Webster and Dekker would have been undoubtedly acquainted (Ives 2009: 142-4). One must here draw attention to the legal validity of Wyatt’s reasoning. Despite his earlier argument centring on the divine authority which ostensibly reinforces Henry’s will, he is nevertheless willing to cultivate support via insistence on the very earthly conventions of oaths and legal statutes. Indeed, he expressly notes the implied parliamentary approval of Henry’s will in contradistinction to Edward’s, which was never sanctioned by parliament (Hunt 2009: 560). Consequently, Webster and Dekker depict a Wyatt whose overt belief in the tenets of divine right is belied by both his legal caviling over the Devise of Edward VI and the legal foundation upon which his insistence on the propriety of Henry VIII’s will is built. Ironically, the legal arguments put forward by Wyatt at this early stage in the play foreshadow what is to become the catalyst for his own downfall.

[10] Later destabilizing Wyatt’s position is his subsequent attitude towards the established Queen Mary. A formerly ardent supporter, Wyatt falls from grace through his refusal to accept the Queen’s desire for a foreign marriage to Philip of Spain. It is a refusal which he once again couches in a morally and legally upright commitment to the will of Henry VIII:

Remember, O remember, I beseech you,
King Henries last will, and his act at Court,
I mean that royal Court of Parliament,
That does prohibit Spaniards from the Land,
That Will and Act, to which you are all sworne,
And do not damn your souls with perjurie.
(Webster and Dekker, 1953 [1607]: III.i.140-45)

Once again, Wyatt’s adherence to Henry’s documentary will contrasts him with his by then unerringly compliant peers, who voice their support of the match immediately following Mary’s denunciation of Wyatt’s ‘liberal and offensive tongue’. It is this fall from favour which leads to Wyatt’s subsequent uprising as he attempts to dispossess Mary of the throne. However, the reasoning behind Wyatt’s refusal to assent to the Spanish match — and his consequent rebellion — needs further examination. Certainly, his claim that the ‘Will and Act’ to which the council were sworn (that is, the 1546 will of Henry VIII and the 1543 Act of Succession) ‘does prohibit Spaniards from the land’ is untenable. Whilst Henry’s will specified that Mary obtain the consent of the majority of the surviving councillors and executors named therein prior to any marriage (something, as Levine notes, she had no intention of doing), there was most certainly no prohibition of Spaniards (Levine 1966: 153]. The only possible interpretation by which Wyatt could have reached such a conclusion lies in the common law rule against alien inheritance of English land: a rule which would have barred Philip from becoming King of England and enjoying a life tenancy of Mary’s lands (Levine 1966: 108). Such a willful and seemingly obscure interpretation of the law (and Henry’s intentions) is less startling than it might seem. On the contrary, the idea was a popular one, advanced by anti-Catholic lawyers and religionists in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, when anxiety about the possibility of Mary Stuart’s accession to the English throne was at its zenith. The idea, of course, had enormous implications for the time of the play’s first performance, when Mary’s son (James VI) was widely expected to accede to the throne following the death of Elizabeth. By then, naturally, the idea had assumed a quite different complexion, and it is no surprise that the crux of Wyatt’s tragic descent lies not only in his adherence to the will of Henry VIII but more crucially in his legal misinterpretation of Henry’s will in support of his own xenophobic bias against Philip. In essence, it was the dramaturgical choice of the playwrights to make Wyatt a doubly tragic figure by making his legal misjudgement a product of anti-Spanish sentiment (certainly popular at the time of the play’s composition) whilst lending contemporary significance to the futility of his quibbling. To Webster and Dekker, the ultimate tragedy of Wyatt’s rebellion and subsequent execution is, therefore, based on a piece of legal chicanery which, with the inevitable prospect of a foreign monarch succeeding the present queen, looked increasingly irrational and outmoded.

[11] What the play makes clear is that the royal will, when it stipulated a deceased monarch’s intentions for future sovereignty, occupied a peculiar and uneasy position between supreme, enduring authority and individual (and thus potentially flawed or self-interested) interpretation. Hence, one can turn to the popularity of contemporary beliefs which held that the alterations in succession introduced by Henry VIII’s will (including his lack of provision for the hereditary claims of the Stuarts, and the arguments thus born concerning the rights of foreign princes to inherit not just land, but the crown of England) were human and invalid, because his body politic remained a separate entity untouched by either his personal or parliamentary attempts to interrupt hereditary succession. This was certainly the argument adopted by pro-Stuart commentators, who espoused the notion that the crown, ‘being a corporation’ was an ordained birthright and therefore something which could not be made or unmade by men (Walker 1998: 215). Such men, of course, included Henry VIII and all who cited his will as a valid bar against foreigners (whether Spaniard or Scot) inheriting the crown. It is no coincidence that this was an argument adopted by supporters of the Stuarts during the Elizabethan regime, in particular the celebrated Catholic lawyer Edmund Plowden, whose Treatise on the Succession presented the argument in 1566. A key component of Plowden’s argument was a belief that the body natural of the King may die, yet the body politic endured. Plowden pointedly wrote that, were Henry VIII’s will to be followed, the kingdom would have been ‘gayned by estopell [that is, an impediment or obstruction] and not by truth’, a view which gained wide currency in Catholic circles.

[12] Nor was Plowden unique in his public consideration of the issues raised by Henry’s unprecedented attempts to maintain his personal will after death. Levine has convincingly demonstrated the variety of means by which the opinions of subjects on the Tudor succession were disseminated both privately and publicly (Levine 1966: 19). Indeed, the Elizabethan period was plagued by treatises which were circulated under the guise of private letters, in addition to such tracts as John Hales’ A Declaration of the Succession on the Crown Imperiall of England (1563), which favoured the claim of the Grey sisters, and the plethora of reactionary texts it spawned. Of course, whilst Levine focuses his discussion on the 1560s, he nevertheless makes plain that by the close of the Elizabethan period, the ‘path was comparatively clear for James VI of Scotland to become James I of England’ (Levine 1966: 206). As such, the wealth of arguments which had had stemmed from the will of Henry VIII and its dismissal of the Stuarts broke down, as did the stipulations of the will itself due to the failure of both the Tudor and Suffolk lines in the production of heirs. The notion of the will itself, of course, is synonymous with mortality, and it is therefore no great deductive leap to recognise that a document which is predicated upon the physical death of the body had lesser sway in a culture which promulgated the belief that the state of sovereignty embodied by the ruler did not die, but rather that the mantle of monarchy passed to a worthy and natural successor. Given the impending death of Elizabeth, and the fact that her probable heir James VI did not pose quite the same threat in terms of religious controversy, the dramatic presentation of Wyatt and his flawed and willfully misinterpreted dedication to the will of Henry VIII provides his character with his particular tragedy.

[13] It may be further argued that Webster and Dekker present a Wyatt who, though successful in adopting and maintaining the will of one monarch, is unable to relinquish it (or, rather, his creative interpretation of it) and act with necessary political contingency according to the living will of the incumbent ruler. His intractability and intransigent nature naturally raises further questions about the role of the council in the play. Indeed, as it is Wyatt’s tragic misunderstanding of the will of a dead monarch at the expense of a living one which brings about his downfall, the play invites a consideration of the dangerous role of the rebel in resisting the combined will of queen and council. Whilst those who bend to the will of the living monarch survive, those who oppose it perish, with even the unfortunate Jane Grey (presented, with questionable authenticity, as largely lacking a strong will of her own) being executed following Mary’s accession. In short, the play highlights the danger of the rebellious subject’s legal wrangling around the posthumous will of a monarch, by exposing the danger of Wyatt’s misguided dedication to Henry VIII’s documentary wishes. The subject loyal to the will of the deceased monarch, it is seen, is cast down upon the accession of the new embodiment of the body politic.

[14] The play also represents the attitudes of the general populace to the royal wills, as the eager Northumberland recognises the importance of securing the assent of the people, calling, ‘In the market Proclaime Queene Jane. / The streets are full, the towne is populous’ (Webster and Dekker 1953 [1607]: II.ii.15-6). The response of the public is captured in an exchange between a clown and a maid:

Maid: God save the queen, what queen? There lies the sense:
When we have none, it can be no offence.

Clown: Well, cry God save queen Jane, as you go, and
God send you a good market.
Maid: Is the right queen call’d Jane? Alack, for woe;
At the first she was not christened so.
(Webster and Dekker, 1953 [1607]: II.i.21-30)

It becomes apparent that the people have a clear knowledge of the sudden complexities of royal succession, which they express with a degree of irreverent liberty and skepticism evidently not apparent to those in power; and yet the attempted subversion of Henry’s will is of particular consequence, as the failure of Northumberland to rouse an army from the people undermines his own grab for power. Consequently, the subversion of Henry’s will at this point in the play is a matter recognized and, although out of plebian control, undermined by the unwillingness and passivity of the common subjects in supporting the hapless Queen Jane. Similarly, the satirical confusion present in the Maid’s speech serves to highlight not only the relationship between commoners and state, but once more draws attention to the general confusion engendered by the changes in succession laws instigated by Henry and Edward’s wills (Ives 2009: 166). Nevertheless, the role of the unsupported and rebellious councillor is rendered largely ineffectual in a play which promotes an overarching political ideology that demotes the will of the deceased monarch in favour of a divinely ordained and legally sanctioned successor. It is here worth noting that Plowden’s concept of the nature of the crown as a corporation consisted of two elements. In addition to the divinity of a succession that was untouched by temporal concerns, the king and his subjects also made a ‘perfect corporation’ (Levine 1966: 113). This was a restatement of the mediaeval idea of the king as the head of a ‘corporation aggregate of many’, with emphasis on the monarch as ‘head’ and the subjects, parliament and council as ‘members’. That Northumberland rebels against the ‘head’ in a bid for power (as Wyatt had earlier punned, placing Northumberland’s will in opposition to ‘the will of God’) is of particular importance. In dramaturgical terms, the Duke’s motives may be placed in contradistinction to Wyatt’s; the latter’s actions stemmed from a tragic misunderstanding of Henry’s will, whilst the former openly sought power through the overturning of that will as manifested in his threat to the united, corporate crown.

[15] Webster and Dekker interrogate the relationship between the monarch, council members (both loyal and rebellious) and the more plebian subjects, and this is an area probed further in Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, Part 1 (alternatively titled The Troubles of Queen Elizabeth), which reached audiences in 1604-5, following the accession of James I. In one particularly telling scene, a trio of soldiers debate the propriety of Queen Mary’s actions in imprisoning her obstinately willful and religiously fervent sister:

2: How shall we spend the time till morning.
3: Mate we’ll drink and talk of our friends.
2: I but my friend, do not talk of state matters.
1: Not I, I’ll not meddle with the state.
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: VI, 470-474)[2]

Naturally, however, the group cannot refrain from discoursing on the politically sensitive events that unfold around them, as they continue:

2: But beware of talking of the Princess,
Let’s meddle with our kindred there, we may be bold.
1: Well sirs I have two sisters, and the one loves the other,
And would not send her to prison for a million, is there any harm
In this? I’ll keep myself within compass I warrant you,
For I do not talk of the Queen, I talk of my sisters,
Ile keep my self within my compass, I warrant you.
3: I but Sir, that word sister goes hardly down.
1: Why Sir, I hope a man may be bold with his own,
I learn’d that of the Queene…
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: VI. 482-491)

Addressing this exchange, Kamps recognizes the soldier’s shift from the public to the domestic sphere as a means of criticizing the Queen and safely meddling with the state — a substitution considered ineffective by the laconic opinion of the third soldier, who holds that the word sister ‘goes hardly downe’ (Kamps 1996: 79). Kamps argues that the scene therefore provides a literary meditation on the way in which history might be approached (with the soldiers providing a metanarrative chorus on the ways in which drama can treat history safely). It is a convincing argument, and one which has consequences for both the play and its audiences. However, it can equally be argued that, like Webster and Dekker’s use of the citizenry in Sir Thomas Wyatt, Heywood’s play provides a dramatic contrast to the ways in which the premier noblemen of the play have little or no effective means of publicly voicing their own reservations about state matters. As such, the scene featuring the soldiers can be viewed alongside another in which Lord Shandoyse castigates the vacillating Sussex on his seeming lack of loyalty to the crown:

Shandoyse:  My Lord, my Lord, let not the love we bear the Princess, incur the Queen’s displeasure, tis no dallying with matters of Estate, who dares gainsay the Queen?

Suffolk: Marry a God not I, no, no, not I;
Yet who shall hinder these my eyes to sorrow,
For her sorrow: By Gods marry deer,
That the Queene could not, though herself were here:

My eyes would hardly prove me a true Subject:
But tis the Queen’s pleasure, and we must obey.
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: VII.546-552; 555-6)

The ways in which the private soldier airs his views stands in direct contrast to that of Sussex. The implication, therefore, is that the nobleman is well aware of the political expediency of dissembling his true will and feelings, as a great many were forced to do in the turbulent years of the reformation, counter-reformation and Elizabethan settlement. The matter is complicated, however, by Sussex’s assertion that his eyes will betray the true bent of his will, despite his demonstrable and overt actions affirming his loyalty to Queen Mary. In this way, the play suggests a greater degree of license on the part of the lower ranks in voicing their own will and opinion. It is an idea certainly reminiscent of Sir Thomas Wyatt, perhaps not coincidentally, as that play also features the hand of Thomas Heywood (at unidentified points). Indeed, both plays share a thematic concern with the divergence of public opinion from that of the monarch and council, and both present a breadth of opinion between council members, and so underline the potential dangers that can result from such divisions. Whilst the substitution method favoured by the first soldier may be crude, he goes unpunished for his discourse. Whilst Suffolk’s rank and public office ensure that he remains bound to the will of his sovereign, the soldier steadfastly maintains that ‘I’ll stand to it; for saying a truth’s a truth, I’ll prove it; / … I know what I know, / You know what you know, he knows what he knows, / Marry we know not what every man knows’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: VI. 502-506). Heywood recognizes and explores the double bind in which noblemen could be caught when personal feelings diverged from the need to conform to the will of the monarch.

[16] It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the voices of the aristocracy and royal officials in If You Know Not Me are united in their submission to the will of Queen Mary. Indeed, the play, like Sir Thomas Wyatt, explores the issue of the corporate crown (and, in Plowden’s explicatory terms, the notion of a ‘divers degree and sort’ of subjects comprising the members of the body politic) and its multitude of integral power structures in a variety of ways. The ultimate intent, in dramatic purposes, is to illustrate the multitude of personal ‘wills’ at work under the guise of submission to the crown. Chiefly — as may be expected in a post-Marian drama — the play is critical of Mary’s advisers, particularly those ‘Prelates’ with whom the ‘Queen is much besotted’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XX. 1382). Of particular note is the corrupt Cardinal [sic] of Winchester, who encourages the Queen to ‘note the commons’ insolence’ in asking her to keep her promise of religious toleration to the Protestant commoners who supported her against the usurping Queen Jane. It is a promise she peremptorily revokes, in language which, once more, mirrors Mary’s volte face in Sir Thomas Wyatt. Winchester later cements his role as chief agitator by encouraging Mary’s suspicions of her sister, as he introduces the leading question: ‘is’t not probable / That she in Wyatt’s expedition, / And other insurrection lately quelled / Was a confederate’? (Heywood 1935 [1605]: II.  97-101).

[17] Similarly, Mary’s Constable of the Tower is consistently depicted as responsible for Elizabeth’s mistreatment, his role as gaoler being one which he performs with barbarous alacrity whilst ostensibly carrying out ‘The Queen’s commands’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: VII. 626). His personal will and obvious enjoyment of the commission, however, are not concealed as, despite a prescient warning from Gage that ‘The Queene I know when she shall hear of this, / Will greatly discommend your cruelty,  … And you may live to serve her [Elizabeth] ere you die’, the Constable insists ‘O you preach well to deaf men, no, not I  …  She is my prisoner, and if I durst, / But that my warrant is not yet so strict, / I’d lay her in a dungeon’. He further, entirely un-presciently, voices the belief that the Queen ‘is likely to bear, / Of her own body a more royal heir (Heywood 1935 [1605]: VIII. 704-718; VII, 630-1). In the Constable of the Tower, consequently, is symbolized the malevolent will opposing and containing the willfully Protestant Elizabeth, in a figure who is wallowing in cruel excess and ‘deaf’ to the appeals of the council. The play’s treatment of Mary’s fragmented power and will undoubtedly allows Heywood to disperse the blame for the failures (and cruelty) of the Marian regime without Mary’s legitimacy to rule being questioned. Additionally, however, it provides a further example of the conception of the corporate body politic — here depicted as an entity corrupted by figures such as the Constable, operating under their own savage wills and potentially, as Gage suggests, in ways abhorrent to the Queen.

[18] The idea of a monarch served by unreliable and willful retainers is no longer an unfamiliar notion. Alice Hunt has identified the contemporary beliefs about the importance of a monarch’s ability to heed the advice of reliable and worthy men of government, while maintaining absolute authority — a bifocality which ‘simultaneously emphasized a state’s unequivocal need for good councillors and a good governor’ (Hunt 2009: 570). However, it arguably also invites audiences to recognize the dangers inherent in abusing the will of the sovereign by advancing personal ambitions and exercising personal will under the cloak of royal authority (further echoing the activities of Northumberland and members of the regency council in Sir Thomas Wyatt). Indeed, this view of the corporate nature of the crown and its underlying plethora of individual wills (only united by the pacific disposition of Elizabeth towards Mary’s former council) becomes a key theme of the play, as, with the death of Winchester and his successor, Cardinal Poole, Sussex remarks that ‘the state begins to alter’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XX. 1404).

[19] In historical terms, the image of a monarch and state which constituted a corporation in the sense of the ‘corporate crown’, comprising a body politic of royal head and non-royal members (as suggested by Plowden in his formulation of arguments against Henry VIII’s will), was very much in keeping with the issues raised by the unprecedented rise of three Queens Regnant to the throne. McIntosh has persuasively argued, Mary and Elizabeth were particularly suited to sovereignty not only because they were named so in Henry’s will, but because as landed women with individual households, they had forged strong corporate identities and won faithful followers who were loyal to the will of their mistress in matters of religion and political ideology (McIntosh 2008: 11). Accordingly, the play therefore draws contemporary parallels with the recent succession of Heywood’s sovereign, James I, lately arrived with his Scottish retinue and keen to portray a sense of unity both in terms of his two kingdoms and his hereditary right — as supported by the English council and recounted in the king’s first address to parliament (McLaren 2002: 290). However, it may be argued that the corrupt and self-interested activities of Mary’s officials and councillors, whilst detracting from the personal failures of the monarch, nevertheless illustrate an unwise council’s potential of poisoning the body politic as a whole.

[20] The notion of the crown as a corporate entity is notable also for the repercussions it has for the presentation of Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain, the ostensible cause of Wyatt’s rebellion in Sir Thomas Wyatt. In fact, both plays, despite having a common author in Heywood, diverge on their treatment of the unpopular king.  The Philip of If You Know Not Me acts as a mediator between rival sisters, whose only goal is ‘A peace that pleaseth heaven and earth and all’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XVIII. 1307). To Kamps, such a remarkably positive presentation is one of historical pragmatism, as, at the time of the play’s publication, peace with Spain (which had begun in 1604 following a period of economic hardship) provided a trade boom which could not be undercut by the resurrection of old, if long-held, antipathies (Kamps 1996: 73-4). It is a point well made, and certainly supported by the existence of what Margot Heinemann recognizes as one of the ‘guiding principles’ of Jacobean censorship, which forbade ‘unfavourable presentation of friendly foreign powers or their sovereigns’ (Heinemann 1980: 39). Whilst Kamps is undoubtedly correct in his assertion, it can still be argued that his focus on Jacobean trade relations and the importance of maintaining peace with Spain neglects the overall effect of Philip’s positive portrayal: that is, a further division of Mary’s royal will and prerogative between husband and wife. Whilst Philip might be portrayed positively as a matter of Stuart expediency, the yoking of a foreign king to Mary nevertheless provided a focal counterpoint to the virginal Elizabeth (who left England to a Stuart successor without accepting a foreigner as a husband). Thus in keeping with the attitudes of her prelates and judicial officials, who provide Elizabeth with antagonists in the play, Philip therefore proves to be a benefactor. More than this, however, he is a benefactor who shares Mary’s crown, thus still further undermining the notion that Mary’s living, royal will (already severely compromised by the meddling of Winchester and the abuses of the Constable in Mary’s name) is completely her own — rather, events proceed from a conglomeration of contentions and competing wills, split between herself, her religiously conservative advisers, her ambivalent subjects, and her husband. In all ways, the crown is a corporation, but here it is a corporation marred by internecine conflict and disharmony.

[21] The effect is one of implicit criticism of Mary’s reign, to the exaltation of her natural successor Elizabeth, who is presented as a bastion of truth and virtue; as is, by extension, her natural successor, James I. Indeed, at the play’s close, Elizabeth visibly ameliorates the concerns of her wrongdoers by introducing unity and peace — a common and united will which lacks the religious factionalism which had hovered in the background of Sir Thomas Wyatt and was made manifest in If You Know Not Me. As Elizabeth is shown succeeding to the throne, Heywood makes liberal use of such historic coronation tableaux as were designed to equate Elizabeth with religious truth and a flourishing commonwealth. In so doing, Heywood invites his audiences to consider the restoration of peace as ultimately providential (Heywood’s Elizabeth is quick to forgive her former tormentors), as well as the result of a successful relationship between the monarch and her subjects (the subjects, in this case, comprising the members of her council who swore their loyalty). Such an idyllic premise is, of course, historically inaccurate: religious factionalism continued throughout the Elizabethan period and beyond. However, in fore-grounding the divine accession of Elizabeth, despite the questionable nature of her right to rule (by dint of her legal illegitimacy), Heywood further legitimizes the equally ‘illegal’ reign of her successor, with the authority enshrined in religious and divine supremacy. Indeed, the difficulties of Henry’s alleged ‘barring’ of the Stuarts from the throne is deftly taken care of as Elizabeth, brandishing an English Bible as a stage prop, declares,

An English Bible!

Who builds on this, dwells in a happy state:
This is the fountain, clear, immaculate.
That happy issue that shall us succeed,
And in our populous kingdom this book read,
For them, as for our selves, we humbly pray,
They may live long, and blessed. So, lead the way.
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: XXIII. 1559; 1572-1577)

Drawing on the Bible given to Elizabeth during her coronation procession by the city of London, Heywood (who would later chronicle this event in his England’s Elizabeth [1631]) is keen to make clear that the book (as a symbol of the reformed religion) constitutes Elizabeth’s true legacy – a religious purity that will flow to and nourish her successors. That it is an English Bible is of particular relevance. Whilst contemporary accounts of the procession do not make explicit that the book presented was in English, the creation of a new, authoritative English Bible had its roots at King James’s Hampton Court Conference of early 1604 (Hunt 2007: 162). As a consequence, a correlation is implicitly drawn between the childless Elizabeth’s religious legacy and James I, Heywood’s monarch, in a way which makes an artistic play on Henry’s stipulation that, whilst the Stuarts had no place in the succession, the ‘heirs’ of Elizabeth did. It is, of course, no coincidence that the King James Bible project, which sought to correct perceived errors in previous Bibles, entered the early stages of production at the same time the play made its appearance. It is a fact clearly underscored by Elizabeth’s telescoping of time in directly imploring her ‘happy issue’ to ‘lead the way’ not only in succeeding her, but in continuing to provide religious succour to her kingdom. In short, the play encouraged audiences to view religion as solving the succession problems exacerbated by Henry’s will and the resultant arguments put forward by anti-­Catholic writers who had once viewed Stuart succession as a critical threat.

[22] While Mary’s marriage to Philip (so criticized in Sir Thomas Wyatt) is a matter of little political consequence in If You Know Not Me, the 1605 play nevertheless discusses matters of religion in a way that the 1601-2 play does not. With the narrative placing two historical queens at odds, notions of religious schism are, perforce, brought to the fore in a more complex manner. The competing wills (in matters of state religion) of queen and future queen are expounded vociferously, as Elizabeth maintains a willful and steadfast refusal to conform to the religious beliefs of her sister, the Catholic ministers, or her gaoler (with Winchester lamenting the decay of religion she is likely to catalyze and the Constable rebuking her as an ‘alien to us Catholics’). The battle of wills reaches its apex as Mary interviews Elizabeth and, on instructing her sister, ‘I am not of your mind’, is countered by Elizabeth’s ‘I would your highness were’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XVIII. 1288-9). Nevertheless, Elizabeth is careful to display the outward appearances of conformity and subjection to Mary’s will, repeating throughout her acceptance of her place as subject. This show of subordination, arguably, is crucial; whilst audiences are encouraged — through the use of dumb show — to appreciate Elizabeth’s dedication to Protestantism, it is no coincidence that her rise to power comes not through rebellion against the state, but through the deaths, in rapid succession, of Winchester, Poole and Mary. Such providential treatment of Elizabeth’s eventual accession is key, as religion plays a fundamental role in If You Know Not Me, with Elizabeth invested with the religious qualities (in addition to a gift for unity and Protestant virtue) that are lacking in Mary. It therefore becomes not only a means of excusing the Stuart succession via allegorical descent, but providing a dramaturgic means of portraying the failures of the one regime to the benefit of another. It is also worth noting that, just as the play was bound by censorship rules to portray Philip positively, so too was it illegal to portray any living sovereign on the stage, even favourably (Heinemann 1980: 39). Nevertheless, the spheres which drama and politics inhabited in the period tended to overlap (as Greg Walker and Henry James have noted in their examination of the succession question as addressed in Gorboduc of 1561), and consequent invitation was made to early-modern audiences to view drama as a direct commentary on contemporary issues (Walker and James 1995: 109-121). As a consequence, the death of a childless queen and the accession of her heir can only have encouraged viewers to further associate the play’s Elizabeth — a virtuous new monarch who had survived religious upheaval and was miraculously given a corporeal Bible by angels — with the newly crowned James, a Protestant heir provided by God despite decades of uncertainty and legal argument which had issued from Henry VIII’s will (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XIV).

[23] As demonstrated, If You Know Not Me shares thematic (as well as historical) concerns with the earlier Sir Thomas Wyatt. As has been seen, the latter explored at some length the danger of unwise and power-hungry council members and noblemen in either misreading or attempting to subvert the will of a deceased monarch, from Wyatt’s specious support of Henry’s will and interpretive creativity in using it as a tool against the Spanish marriage, to Northumberland’s divergent attempt to unseat Mary in favour of his daughter in law. In a similar vein, at the climax of Webster and Dekker, Elizabeth’s clown didactically advises that ‘We must live by the quick, and not by the dead’, a view which elicits the Lord of Tame to ruminate on the mortality of sovereigns and their wills:

Did you not love her father when he liv’d
And yet rejoiced at his funeral:
Likewise her brother, you esteem’d him dear,
Yet once departed, joyfully you sung,
Run to make bonfires, to proclaim your love
Unto the new, forgetting still the old:

Let Princes while they live have love or fear ‘tis fit,
For after death, there’s none continues it.
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: XXII. 1488-1502)

The echoes of Webster and Dekker’s Sir Thomas Wyatt are as unmistakable as Heywood’s point is explicit: the expedient subject would be wise to observe present circumstances, and to be loyal to the institution of the crown rather than to the will of a deceased monarch. Thus, whilst Hunt suggests that the Marian period coincided with a flowering of dramatic material which sought to ‘teach monarchs a lesson’ about heeding wise counsel, it becomes clear that the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period was characterised by an equal concern with educating the subject on his place in a providential commonwealth and stressing the unity of the corporate crown as it passed on via divinely appointed and hereditary succession (Hunt 2009: 570). One can therefore discern a direct indication that devotion to Henry VIII’s contested will, and its inherent bar to the Stuart line, was as futile as the presumptuous regency council’s ambitious pretension in attempting to uphold Edward VI’s Devise. Rather more important (especially so for a country which would be ravaged by civil war a generation later), emphasis is also consistently placed on the inefficacy of factional disputes in breaking royal wills and the need for a wise and unified council.

[24] In conclusion, it may be noted that the authors of Sir Thomas Wyatt employed the unusual historical circumstances of the posthumous, published will of Henry VIII, and the problems it entailed for the Jacobean succession, in order to expound the popular theory of the divine inheritance of a corporate crown. Further, both plays provide a tacit, if persistent, encouragement for subjects to practice pragmatic obeisance and loyalty to the current incumbent to the throne, rather than to a dangerous deference to the perceived wishes of his or her predecessor. It is perhaps to be expected that, given Henry VIII’s unprecedented attempts to secure his will after death, coupled with his son’s attempts at emulation and the subsequent failure of both in fashioning the future of the monarchy from beyond the grave, that dramatists would seek to explore contemporary concerns about succession through the lens of historiography. To Webster and Dekker, Thomas Wyatt presented a historically equivocal figure who supported the popular Queen Elizabeth (of lasting fame and memory), yet who was also responsible for rebellion against the crown, in Webster’s terms, ‘one who subverts the state’. Webster and Dekker invest their representation of Wyatt with an ambiguity which behooved such a divisive and enigmatic figure (aligned as he was with popular opinion but, in the play, tragically misguided by creative and partisan legal interference), and thus use Sir Thomas Wyatt to explore the role and motivation of the subject in a world of competing royal wills, rebellious councillors and a disharmonious body politic. In so doing, they took advantage of the ambiguity of Wyatt’s reputation in order to display the futility of the testamentary royal will in a contemporary political climate that hotly debated the inviolable rights of hereditary succession, and the political theology of the body natural being a separate and changeable entity from the body politic. Similarly, Heywood in If You Know Not Me took advantage of the realpolitik of Tudor history in order to reveal the crown as a site of competing, individual wills acting under the guise of submission, whilst ultimately upholding the virtues of a divine and unalterable succession at the expense of the flawed and unsuccessful, posthumous will of a deceased monarch. In this way, both plays took advantage of the (at first upcoming and then recent) accession of James I and the arguments put forward for and against the Stuart succession as a result of Henry VIII’s last will, in order to reflect on the pitfalls of disputed succession, to display the dangers of rebellion and partisan preoccupation with the legal niceties of that will, and to illustrate the benefits of smooth and divinely ordained transfer of power from the celebrated Elizabeth to her heir presumptive and coreligionist.

University of Strathclyde


[1] In the interests of brevity, the play will be henceforth attributed to Webster and Dekker as in the title page to the printed 1607 edition. [back to text]

[2] Spellings have been modernised from the Malone Society Reprint (1935) edition of the play. [back to text]


Heinemann, M. 1980. Puritanism and Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama Under the Early Stuarts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Heywood, T. 1935 [1605]. If You Know Not Me, You Know No Bodie, in If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, Part I, ed. by M. Doran. Malone Society Reprint (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Hoy, C. 1980. Introduction, Notes, and Commentaries to Texts in ‘The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker’, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Hunt, A. 2007. The Drama of Coronation: Mediaeval Ceremony in Early Modern England. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Hunt, A. 2009. ‘The Monarchical Republic of Mary I’. The Historical Journal,  52 (3): 557-572

Ives, E. 2009. Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell)

James, H., G. Walker. 1995. ‘The Politics of Gorboduc’. The English Historical Review, 110 (435): 109-121

Kamps, I. 1996. Historiography and Ideology in Stuart Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Levine, M. 1966. The Early Elizabethan Succession Question: 1558-1568 (Stanford: Stanford University Press)

McIntosh, J. L. 2008. From Heads of Household to Heads of State: The Preaccession Households of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, 1516-1558. Gutenburg: Columbia University Press

McLaren, A. 2002. ‘The Quest for a King: Gender, Marriage, and Succession in Elizabethan England’. Journal of British Studies, 41 (3):  259-290

Smith, L. B. 1962. ‘The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII: A Question of Perspective’. Journal of British Studies, 2 (1): 14-27

Walker, G. 1998. The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

[Webster and Dekker] Webster, J., H. Chettle, T. Dekker, W. Smith, T. Heywood. 1953 [1607]. Sir Thomas Wyatt, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, Volume I, ed. by F. Bower (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)