William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TWENTY-THREE: If the Assassination Could Trammel Up the Consequence
Early the next morning, I lay awake under my blanket mulling over where to begin looking for Ben Jonson and how best to deliver Queen Elizabeth’s message to him. He had told me after distributing his portraits of the Earl of Essex that he was going to go into hiding and get ready to plead benefit of clergy. But he hadn’t said where.
As I rolled over to reach for the glass of water on my bedside table, my door opened about a quarter of the way. Edmund stuck his head in and said: “Up! Sir Gelly Meyrick sent me to get you. He’s waiting at Casa Corisco.”
Before I could ask Edmund what the matter was, he had closed the door behind him. I threw on the clothes I wore the previous day – clothes I had been hoping to wash that afternoon – and followed him outside.
“Sir Gelly told me he’s not leaving Casa Corisco until he sees you,” Edmund said, peering into my dim eyes through the early morning fog. “Take my horse. I will walk to the Globe. Richard is expecting me there.”
A student of astronomy, Sir Gelly Meyrick was, like me, an unwavering follower of Essex. When my brother said he wanted to see me immediately, I wished it had been to gaze at heavenly bodies from his garden. But the real reason wouldn’t have required a genius to surmise. Images of Essex as King Robert flashed before me while I rode half-asleep to Casa Corisco.
Sir Gelly was sitting in his coach when I arrived at the house. He beckoned me to join him. The moment I climbed into the vehicle, he signalled his driver to set off.
About an hour later, we were at Meyrick House. To my surprise, Augustine Philips, our troupe’s accountant and record keeper, was there. He sat erect on the edge of a chair in an antechamber, with Richard Burbage, who was supposed to be meeting Edmund at the Globe, scowling beside him.
When we joined them, Sir Gelly, who hadn’t spoken to me the entire time we rode to his residence, said: “Essex wants your company to give Richard the Second at the Globe a week from today. Augustine and Richard here say they won’t. What do you say?”
“It depends, my lord.” I concealed my excitement from my fellow players as best I could.
“The earl wants his audience to be shown the deposition scene, if that’s what you’re driving at. It’s capital for his purpose. And I will pay the Chamberlain’s Men forty shillings for the privilege – that’s in addition to your takings at the box.”
Richard and Augustine both shook their heads while I said: “Please give us this afternoon to discuss the matter.”
“Bring me your answer before sunset. Good day!”
Sir Gelly huffed a vaporous breath and stormed out. Closing the door behind him, Augustine whispered: “For the extra forty shillings, I say let’s do it.”
Richard knew I needed no persuading. He rose and said pointedly to me: “This will be the last time I play King Richard the Second. And it’s you I’m doing it for. Not them.”
I thanked him, and he and I walked to the Globe together, leaving Augustine behind to give Sir Gelly our reply.
Upon arriving at the theatre, we set about selecting a cast and preparing scripts for a performance we both feared could spell the dissolution of the Lord Chamberlain’s acting company if not the decapitation of everyone associated with it. But neither he nor I put our fears in words as we worked frantically all day.
My hair stands on end even now as I recall the damp February afternoon six days later that Richard Burbage enacted Henry Bolingbroke, “Duke of Hereford, afterwards King Henry the Fourth.” He had had enough of the title role. So I played King Richard opposite his usurper.
The veteran actor was costumed like Essex, fitted in the earl’s own suit of armour, and made up to look like him, down to the “Cadiz beard”. Rumour has it that the round of applause which greeted his first entrance was heard across the Thames in Whitehall Palace.
Richard didn’t portray Henry Bolingbroke, the historical figure. He played Robert Devereux, mimicking the earl’s speech, gestures and mannerisms. And he did so good a job at it that when his Duke of Hereford wrested the crown from my King Richard, Sir Francis Bacon sneaked out of the theatre. I learned from Edmund later that, even though he had been assured the man on the stage was a player, Her Majesty’s chief intelligencer had gone to verify for himself that the real Earl of Essex was in his home.
Essex had to be home. After roughly a year of reading petitions from his family and friends, the queen had ordered that he be taken out of the Tower and put under house arrest.
Edmund, who had followed Sir Francis, also informed me that Devereux was indeed home when the man of law arrived at Essex House. But the prisoner was sitting in his garden – although he had been forbidden to go outside. And right beside him was his closest ally, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. The Southampton visit was in breach of another order: that Essex receive no guests.
For months before, we, the leading supporters of Essex, had been holding weekly meetings at Southampton’s Titchfield residence to plan the unseating of Queen Elizabeth and the coronation of King Robert. And once or twice a month, disguised as a footman, Southampton visited his friend to update him on our progress. He also paid visits in the same disguise to Frances, the Countess of Essex, who was virtually imprisoned on the estate of her late father, Sir Francis Walsingham.
On the afternoon we staged Richard the Second for Essex, Sir Francis Bacon didn’t stop at his residence. But he must have caught a glimpse of the two figures in the garden as his carriage drove past Essex House, because Edmund observed that less than an hour later an officer arrived on horseback. It was Lord Grey of Wilton, who supervised the guards assigned to arrest Essex if he attempted to escape.
From his vantage spot behind a bush, Edmund heard his lordship ask one of the two guards then on duty: “Has anyone entered that house today?”
“Not today, my lord. But we let Countess Frances in last night. She was in a frightful state. She stayed the night. I just saw her and his lordship in the garden.”
“And I just saw her at the Globe!”
Lord Grey and his subordinates were forbidden to enter Essex House. So he stood guard with the two men until nightfall. And that’s when Southampton’s daring-do was put to the test.
As the disguised earl climbed into Countess Frances’s carriage, Lord Grey ordered: “In the name of Her Majesty, arrest that woman. She’s not the Countess of Essex.”
The arrest was duly executed. While one of the guards questioned his coach driver, the other one escorted Southampton to Lord Grey.
“Good gracious!” muttered his lordship upon realizing whom he had ordered arrested. “My lord Earl of Southampton, you shall vacate these premises forthwith. Never to return. Upon pain of death.”
Southampton thanked his captor. But instead of obeying the order, he took off his frock and returned to Essex House in breeches and a jerkin.
When Edmund told me what happened next, I bit my already chapped lower lip so hard that it bled.
Less than an hour after entering the Essex residence, Southampton reemerged in armour with a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. Devereux, equally armed, sprang from behind him and surprised the first guard with a mortal blow to the chest. Southampton struck the second one on the shoulder, but not hard enough to prevent him from running away. Lord Grey fled on his horse.
It was that uncalled-for assault which set into action the chain of events now referred to as the Essex Rebellion.
The entire cast of King Richard the Second was caught in the thick of the confrontation which ensued the next morning. We were in the crowd which accompanied Robert Devereux on his way to seizing power from Queen Elizabeth.
Our plan was to take control of Whitehall Palace and the Tower, rout Devereux’s enemies at court and station our own guards at the palace before executing the last of the Tudors. After which the Earl of Southampton was to explain to the gathered crowd why Queen Elizabeth deserved to die. And in the calm which followed, Sir Gelly Meyrick would introduce the new king of England to those present and announce the date of his coronation.
The previous day’s performance of Richard the Second was intended to whet Londoners’ appetite for the real-life deposition to follow. We assumed that those who heard the play wouldn’t go to sleep, because they would be too anxious to witness an event such as hadn’t occurred anywhere in Europe in three hundred years.
But when the time came for him to end Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Robert Devereux fell victim to the vagaries of political winds and the fickleness of the human heart. Out of an estimated four thousand onlookers who came to see Richard the Second deposed, only about three hundred unwavering supporters lined up behind the earl on his doomed march to Whitehall. And that number dwindled along the way as bystanders watched us without answering our rallying cries.
No sooner did we break into the city than Essex realized that Secretary of State Robert Cecil was better prepared for a fight than he. He ordered us to turn around, bought dinner for everyone, and galloped away.
Richard Burbage and I had joined the march to Whitehall Palace still costumed, respectively, as the new King Henry the Fourth and the uncrowned Richard of Bordeaux. After our dinner, he and I walked back to the Globe together to change. That’s where we were when Edmund, who had followed Devereux to his home in the Strand, brought us news of his arrest.
Hundreds of other arrests were made that day. But, to everybody’s amazement, the Chamberlain’s Men were let off without even so much as a reprimand. Augustine Philips, who represented us before the Privy Council, was persuasive in defending our troupe. And he had his forty-shilling receipt to show the council as proof that we had been bribed into staging a banned drama.
Queen Elizabeth herself made light of our participation in the plot. To show that she bore the company no ill will, she invited us to entertain her with The Merry Wives of Windsor. We performed the comedy before Her Royal Majesty on Shrove Tuesday – less than an hour, it is said, after she signed the death warrant of her last lover.
Robert Devereux was executed the next day. Thanks to his mother’s pleadings with the queen, Southampton, our second in command, escaped the death penalty. Instead, the Secretary of State had him thrown in the Tower of London. Indefinitely.
In the course of the Essex reversal, I saw Ben Jonson once – just long enough for him to tell me his hiding place: the bishop’s palace in Winchester. But I didn’t have to go to Winchester to notify him about the command performance in which he was to play the title role in a banned drama before the very authority who had banned it. He was in the crowd which gathered at the Tower on Ash Wednesday to witness Robert Devereux’s last hour on earth.
After I finished telling Ben about the queen’s order, he said: “And you are invited to meet a Warwickshire watchman in the Latin Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.”
“On the first of next month. After vespers.” Ben told me that my host-to-be had been to the Globe three times asking for me while I was at Casa Corisco steeling myself against the brewing storm.
“He wouldn’t give you his name, you say?”
“No. Nor would he come inside the palace. Clearly, he didn’t want me to be able to recognize him in future. He was wearing a hood. In the dark. It’s the lad he sent to fetch me who described him as a watchman from Warwickshire.”
On the appointed day that March, less than five minutes after I entered a pew in the aforementioned chapel, a tall watchman in Oxford livery came and stood beside me. Neither he nor I said a word to each other until the evening service was over. After the last of the other worshippers had left, he lifted his visor and said: “Hello Will.”
“Hello Rob,” I replied. Even in a noisy market, I would have been able to distinguish Robert Catesby’s rich, resonant voice from everyone else’s. “So this is where you’re hiding.”
“Can you think of a better place? Or a more concealing disguise?”
Robert, who turned twenty-nine that day, was a wanted man – wanted for questioning about gunpowder he was suspected of importing and putting in storage somewhere in London.
Although his family lived close to Stratford, he and I hadn’t seen each other since I saw him off in Corisco in the winter of 1585. And what little correspondence passed between us in the intervening years had been limited to goodwill messages at Christmas and Easter. We could have mused over our pasts all night that night and all day the next day. But Robert went straight to the point of our meeting.
“Richard Burbage tells me you will be enacting Brutus in the upcoming performance of your forbidden play.”
“Much against my wishes.”
“Guess who’s going to play Casca.”
“I don’t have to guess. I was present when Richard assigned the role to my brother Edmund.”
“And do you also know that one of Her Majesty’s henchmen has paid Edmund handsomely to kill Ben Jonson.”
“On stage? In broad daylight? In the presence of witnesses?”
“Yes, yes, and yes.” Robert stood up and laid a hand on my shoulder. “If he were to fulfill his contract, he wouldn’t be acting when he stabs Caesar. His blow would have to be fatal. But I want to replace him and turn the table on Queen Murderous Elizabeth. I’m going to need your help to do so.”
“Don’t count on it.” I rose to leave.
“Would you, or would you not, like to see Southampton crowned king?”
“The Earl of Southampton is in gaol. Does he know you want to make him king?” I moved one pace away, knelt down, closed my eyes and bowed my head.
Robert slid closer, and knelt beside me. “Southampton told me what to do,” he whispered. “Your brother has substituted for you many times in the past. Get him to play Brutus that day. You will accompany the earl to Richmond Palace disguised as Countess Elizabeth.”
“But he’s not allowed out of the Tower.”
“I shall get him out on the ides of March.”
“And what need is there for me to play the countess when she could just as easily accompany her husband herself?”
Robert ignored my question and transfixed me with his piercing, blue eyes. Showing not the slightest emotion, he resumed: “You and the earl are going to arrive late, and will be positioned out of Queen Elizabeth’s view. When we reach the scene where Caesar spurns Brutus and the other senators pleading for Cimber’s return from banishment, Casca will unsheathe his dagger. But as he says “Speak hands for me,” instead of stabbing Caesar, he will jump off the stage, lunge his weapon into the queen’s heart, and shout: “The queen is dead!” That will be your cue to raise Southampton’s hand high up in the air and proclaim: “Long live the king!”
Henry Wriothesley? King Henry the Ninth? For fourteen days running, I could neither eat nor drink. My mouth was permanently dry as sweat drained round the clock out of the palms of my hands. By mid-March, I was as thin as a rake. All for nothing.
When the curtain rose on Julius Caesar in Richmond Palace on the ides of March 1601, during the performance of which play Robert Catesby was to have assassinated Queen Elizabeth, Secretary of State Robert Cecil was sitting in the chair that had been reserved for her. She was under the weather.
Her Majesty’s plot and the Catesby counterplot both came to an end when Caesar played dead a fraction of a second before Casca stabbed him. The Secretary of State rose and ordered that the two players be arrested. Ben Jonson was charged with “propagating false defamatory allegations,” and Robert Catesby with the illegal importation of gunpowder.
Copyright: Raphael Soné