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Ron Heisler - The Impact of Freemasonry on Elizabethan Literature
Article originally published in The Hermetic Journal, 1990.
The Impact of Freemasonry
on Elizabethan Literature
Ron Heisler ©
The enthusiasm among Renaissance
men for classical and Hebrew texts brought in its train a revival,
and encouraged a sophisticated and creative apprehension, of numerous
mystical, alchemical, hermeticist and occultist tendencies. But
it was a revival that inevitably encountered resistance from powerful
vested interests, especially in theological circles. Compelled
to adopt strategies for survival, seekers after "higher truths"
sought immunity from reprisal and persecution in the sub-culture
of the occult "underground". Thus the secret society
began to proliferate.
Early in the 16th century Henry
Cornelius Agrippa visited England and his friends among the Oxford
Humanists - John Colet and Thomas More in particular. Some academics
have deduced from his own words that he formed a society in England
at this time (circa 1510).1
I am led to believe that there still exist "Books of Shadows"
(membership books) of witches' covens, for which the earliest
entries date back to the 16th century.2
I am grateful to Roger Nyle Parisious
- to whose boundless knowledge of the more labyrinthine byways
of Shakespeariana I am greatly indebted - for drawing my attention
to the Memoirs of Président de Thou, the great French
historian and friend of William Camden. In 1596 a gentleman called
Beaumont was found guilty of magical practices by a court at Angoulême.
At a conference held in 1598, at which de Thou was present and
no torture was in prospect, Beaumont made a confession regarding
the magical art. De Thou reports, "That Beaumont himself
held a commerce with Aërial and Heavenly Spirites
Schools and Professors of this noble Art, had been frequent in
all Parts of the World, and still were so in Spain, at Toledo,
Cardona, Grenada and other Places: That they had also been formerly
celebrated in Germany, but for the most part had failed, ever
since Luther had sown the Seeds of his Heresy, and began to have
so many Followers: that in France and in England it was still
secretly preserved, as it were by Tradition, in the Families of
certain Gentlemen; but that only the initiated were admitted into
the Sacred Rites; to the exclusion of profane Persons
We know much about the magical activities of John Dee and Sir
Edward Kelley, and about Simon Forman, who at All Hallow-tide
1590 "entered the circle for necromantical spells",
as he puts it in his diary. Thomas Nashe talked of "the unskilfuller
cozening kind of alchemists, with their artificial and ceremonial
magic." At about the same time, Roman Catholic gentry were
being regularly titillated at secret conventicles where Catholic
priests exorcised victims allegedly possessed by the Devil. The
"Confession" of Richard Mainy in June 1602 tells of
the exorcisms carried out at Lord William Vaux's house in Hackney
The staunch Catholicism of the Vauxs brought down on them repeated
persecution through the years - for illicitly and secretly practicing
their religion. William Vaux's son Edward commanded a regiment
in the Low Countries, which in 1623 became a target for state
repression with the uncovering of two secret societies within
Experiment and novelty were the
order of the day. Robert Naunton wrote to the Earl of Essex from
Paris on the 5th April 1597 with the hot news that Henri IV of
France (formerly Henri of Navarre) was celebrating the Elueusinian
mysteries that Easter. Naunton sadly added, "But these Eleusina
Sacra are nowe growen to be miseries not to be told in Gathin
But what, the reader may ask, of
freemasonry? In stark contrast to the ample surviving records
of Scottish freemasonry, very little has come down to us that
testifies to the English masonic tradition before the later 17th
century. The masonic historian Anderson's apologia on this question
is worth full quotation: "But many of the Fraternity's Records
of this [Charles II's] and former Reigns were lost in the next
[James II's] and at the Revolution ; and many of 'em were
too hastily burnt in our Time from a Fear of making Discoveries
The latter refers to the conflict between Jacobites and Hanoverians.
The earliest certain English "admittances" to the Craft
were those of Elias Ashmole and Col. Henry Mainwaring, of Karincham
in Cheshire, at Warrington in 1646.8
Recently, however, I have come across some fascinating indications
of masonic activity in late Elizabethan England, which are apparently
quite unknown to mainstream masonic historians.
In the latter part of the 1580's
a flood of pamphlets began to spew out of the London print-shops,
which eventually became collectively notorious as the Martin Marprelate
Marprelate was the pseudonym of some fringe Puritan writers engaged
in attacking the despotic practices, and abuses, of the hierarchy
of bishops in the Church of England. The bishops, stung beyond
endurance, and completely misfiring with their early published
reponses, commissioned some talented polemicists to mount an effective
counter-attack; and in 1589 the printer John Charlewood produced
a brilliant short tract entitled A Countercuffe given to Martin
Junior. It was signed "Pasquill". Behind this pen-name
lay most probably Thomas Nashe, possibly Robert Greene - or, equally
possibly, both friends in collaboration. In one passage we read:
"In the mean season, sweet
Martin Junior, play thou the knave kindly as thou hast begun,
and waxe as olde in iniquitie as thy father. Downe with learning
and Universities, I can bring you a Free-mason out of Kent, that
gave over his occupation twentie yeeres agoe. He wil make a good
Deacon for your Purpose, I have taken some tryall of his gifts,
hee preacheth very pretilie over a Joynd-stoole." (A.iij)
Pasquill definitely knew enough
about freemasons to be aware that a "Deacon" was one
of their office-holders (it has previously been thought that the
earliest references to Deacons date no earlier than the 1730's)10;
and that the Master of a lodge occupied a "Joynd-stoole".
Whether we should take as factual Pasquill's comment, "I
have taken some tryall of his gifts," is a moot point. If
seriously meant, it seems to imply that the writer - and I suspect
Nashe - had actually attended a masonic meeting at some stage.
Nashe, the acutest observer of the life of the common people in
his time, certainly knew something about the masons. In The
Unfortunate Traveller, which he published under his own name,
he informs us that "Masons paid nothing for hair to mix their
Among the stream of anti-Martinist
pamphlets that slewed into the book-stalls in October 1589 was
one by John Lyly the dramatist, who used the sobriquet of "Double
V", and in which, for no obvious reason, he inserted an direct
attack on Gabriel Harvey, whom he reckoned a pedant "full
of latin endes", who "cares as little for writing without
wit as Martin doth for writing without honestie".12
Harvey composed a reply, the Advertisement for Papp-hatchett,
before the end of the year, which he did not publish till 1593.
In it, he wrote of "Nash, the Ape of Greene; Greene, the
Ape of Euphues; Euphues the Ape of Envie
feudists, drawe all in a yoke."13
Euphues was Lyly's most famous work.
In 1590 Richard Harvey, Gabriel's
brother, produced A Theological Discourse of the Lamb of God
and his Enemies, jollied along, it is widely and reasonably
thought, by Gabriel. Certain passages, in fact, bear Gabriel's
stylistic imprint. I see this work as intrinsically an attempt
to dissociate the Puritan moderates from the activities, and ill-repute,
of the fringe Martinists, whilst getting in some juicy body blows
at the Grub Street literati, with their suspect morals or Catholic
leanings, whom the bishops had paid gold to.
In his prefatory epistle, Richard
Harvey takes a swipe at Nashe, "who taketh uppon him in civill
learning, as Martin doth in religion, peremptorily censuring his
betters at pleasure, Poets, Orators, Polihistors, Lawyers, and
whome not." In the main text, the Rev. Harvey - in a passage
probably primarily aimed at Lyly - remarks, "But there remayneth
yet a monstrous and a craftie antichristian practisser,
one and his mate compounded of many contraries, to breede the
is content to be ridiculous himself
he is a boone companion for the nonce, a secrete fosterer of illegitimate
corner conceptions, a great orator for ruffianly purposes,
a bloody massacrer and cutthroate in jesters apparrell
Gabriel Harvey, in the Advertisement
called Lyly "an odd, light-headed fellow
, a professed
iester, a Hick-scorner, a scoff-maister
" who disgraced
his "arte with ruffianly foolery."15
The crucial passage for our purposes,
however, is that where Richard (or Gabriel) Harvey in A Theological
- gunning for Lyly and Nashe together, no
doubt - laments thus:
"But alas there are many strange
errors abroad in the earth, and there are too many headstrong
mainteyners of old paradoxes and new forged novelties, which either
renew those antiquated trifles, or give them a colour, a devise
and glosse of the makers, which are their craftes maisters and
bond slaves. Such men are girded and wrapped up in with splene
and brought up cheefly in the chapters De contradicentibus
[of people opposing], and so wedded and given to alter all statutes
and turkisse [tyrannize over] all states,
that they have
become plaine turkish and rebellious,
The choice of "craftes maisters"
in one sentence and of "chapters" in the next cannot
be accidental. An actual fraternity of splenetic discontents is
being hinted at. A 1425 document, incidentally, refers to the
"annual congregations and confederacies made by the masons
in their general chapters and assemblies."17
John Lyly was prone to dark accusation.
In 1582, whilst secretary to the Earl of Oxford, he fell into
trouble over financial matters. He appealed to Oxford's father-in-law,
Lord Burghley, in a letter of July that year. His postscript ends
with the strangest of declarations: "Loth I am to be a prophitt,
and to be a wiche [Witch] I loath. Most dutiful to command John
Lyly." Gabriel Harvey was to attach the label of "black
arts" to Lyly in print some years later.18
Matters were patched up with the erratic, somewhat paranoid Earl
of Oxford, it would seem. By 1584 Lyly had gone to St. Paul's
School to take over the running of the Paul's boys theatrical
company - of whom Oxford was the patron. His plays were acted
regularly at court - again partly through the influence of Oxford,
one would suppose.
Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl
of Oxford, is the raison d'être of a whole sub-section of
the Shakespeare industry. This is a controversy way above my head:
for me, Shakespeare is the best Shakespeare we have. But I find
it surprising that nothing has ever been made by the Oxfordians
of a most peculiar verse in Oxford's poem Labour and its Reward,
included in Thomas Bedingfield's "Englishing" of Cardanus
Comforte (1573, '76):
An illustration from The Mirror
of Policie, an anonymous translation from Guillaume de la
Perrière's Le miroir politique. Published in London
in 1598 by Adam Islip. The same author's emblem book The theater
of fine devices was entered on the Stationer's Register on
the 9th May 1593 by the printer Richard Field, Shakespeare's friend
from Stratford-on-Avon. The latter translation was by Thomas Combe,
the secretary of Sir John Harington. No-one has been able to establish
whether or not this Combe was the same as the Thomas Combe associated
with Stratford-on-Avon. But he remains a prime contender for the
distinction of having translated The Mirror of Policie.
"The mason poor that builds
the lordly halls,
Dwells not in them; they are for
His cottage is compact in paper
And not with brick or stone, as
Apart from Japan, I cannot conceive
of any time or clime where masons literally live in cottages "compact
in paper walls". What are these "paper walls"?
Is this a reference possibly to the Old Charges - the constitution
and history of the freemasons - faithfully adhered to within masonic
lodges? It is a teasing verse in another respect: tying in "The
mason poor" with the question of "high degree".
It is noteworthy that the author of Hamlet reverently read
Cardanus Comforte - it is the basis of some of the finest
philosophical lines ever spoken at Elsinore (Hamlet on sleep III.i.).
Gabriel Harvey waited till 1593
before launching his greatest broadside against Nashe and Lyly
in Pierces Supererogation. There he writes, "it is
sound Argumentes, and grounded Authorities, that must strike the
definitive stroke, and decide the controversy, with mutuall satisfaction.
Martin bee wise, though Browne were a foole: and Pappe-hatchet
[Lyly] be honest, though Barrow be a knave: it is not your heaving
and hoifing coile, that buildeth-upp the walles of the Temple.
Alas poore miserable desolate most-woefull Church, had it no other
builders, but such architects of their owne fantasies, and such
maisons of infinite contradiction."20
Harvey never chose his words lightly: with him they are always
carefully worked over - and, some would say, overworked. He has
very expertly tarred Lyly with the brush of the "maisons
of infinite contradiction".
Neither Lyly nor Nashe ever penned
a denial of the accusation. But Nashe, on behalf of himself and
his friend, went to a great length to turn the accusation. He
seized his chance in the devastating Have with you to Saffron-Walden,
or, Gabriel Harveys Hunt is up of 1596, a viciously effective
exposé of Harvey's life and literary pretentions. Using
his already famous sobriquet of Pierce Pennilesse, Nashe at one
point gives himself the observation, "
all which Idees of monstrous excellencie, some smirking Singularists,
brag Reformists, and glicking Remembrancers (not with the multiplying
spirite of the Alchumist, but the villanist) seeke to bee masons
of infinite contradiction
What on earth is this all about?
The section is actually a parody of Harvey's writing style - all
the more effective because it strings together various overwrought
phrases that Harvey had coined. Nashe proceeds to give the phrases
a second airing. Using the persona this time of Don Carneades
de boune compagniola, Nashe guys Harvey as follows:
"As, for an instance: suppose
hee were to sollicite some cause against Martinists, were it not
a jest as right sterling as might be, to see him stroke his beard
thrice & begin thus?
may it please you to be advertised,
how that certain smirking Singularists, brag Reformists, and glinking
Remembrancers, not with the multiplying spirit of the Alchumist,
but the villanist, have sought to be Masons of infinite contradiction,
and with their melancholy projects, frumping contras, tickling
against you, & the beau-desert & Idees
of your encomiasticall Church government
What does this amount to? Is it
simply aimed at Harvey's overripe prose? I doubt it. To begin
with, there is more than one clue in the passage that the attack
on Lyly was a prime concern. In Pierces Supererogation
Harvey, in abusing Lyly, remarked that "A glicking Pro,
and a frumping Contra, shall have much-adoe to shake handes
in the Ergo."23
Nashe has slyly included the expression "frumping contras",
which surely only an inner circle of readers could have been expected
to recall was aimed at Lyly. In the Supererogation Harvey
had also attacked the Nashe-Lyly group in these terms: "Certes
other rules are fopperies: and they that will seeke out the Archmistery
of the busiest Modernistes, shall find it nether more, nor lesse,
then a certayne pragmaticall secret, called Villany, the verie
science of sciences, and the Familiar Spirit of Pierces Supererogation
it is the Multiplying spirit, not of the Alchimist, but of the
villanist, that knocketh the naile on the head, and spurreth out
farther in a day, then the quickest Artist in a weeke."24
The play off between "Alchimy"
and "Villany" in the Supererogation reached its
apotheosis when Harvey wrote:
"and in the baddest, I reject
not the good: but precisely play the Alchimist, in seeking pure
and sweet balmes in the rankest poisons
O Humanity, my Lullius,
or O Divinitie, my Paracelsus, how should a man become that peece
of Alchimy, that can turne the Rattes-bane of Villany into the
Balme of honeste
The sophisticated Elizabethan follower
of the Harvey-Nashe feud (and there were many such), accustomed
to Harvey's penchant for paradoxical overstatement, would have
gleefully remembered his preference for "seeking pure and
sweet balmes in the rankest poisons". It was of a piece with
that fashionable "School of Night" movement, exemplified
in the poet George Chapman, which lauded darkness and night and
If Nashe was not depicting Harvey
as babbling nonsense, what then? I think we are given a hint
when Don Carneades suggests that Harvey would "stroke his
beard thrice" - for stroking one's cheek or face with a finger
was a mark of recognition among secret orders. A Mason's Confession
of 1727 describes how "he gives the sign, by the right hand
above the breath, which is called the fellow-crafts due guard."
The Grand Mystery of Free-Masonry Discover'd (1724) describes
a masonic sign thus: "Stroke two of your Fore-Fingers over
your Eye-Lids three times." Don Carneades' speech has, in
actuality a deep meaning which is the opposite of the surface
meaning of individual phrases. Nashe, in other words, is portraying
Harvey not as deploring, but as commending those who "sought
to be Masons of infinite contradiction".
What was Nashe getting at? There
are mysteries even in the past of Gabriel Harvey. Circa 1578-80
he won immortality by forming, with Edmund Spencer, Sir Edward
Dyer and Sir Philip Sidney, a small literary circle devoted to
reforming English poetry, which Harvey described as a "new-founded
areopagus" that was better than "two hundred Dionisii
Areopagitae". Dr. Moffet's memior of Sidney describes him
as seeking out the mysteries of chemistry "led by God with
Dee as teacher and Dyer as companion". Harvey was, in fact,
briefly secretary to Sir Edward Dyer, the loyal confidante of
John Dee and the "gold making" Edward Kelley. Harvey
was probably too much of a dilettante to indulge overmuch in serious
chemistry. However, astrology was to his taste, as was magic.
He acquired the "secret writings" of Doctor Caius [of
Caius College fame] and a Key of Solomon. He described one of
his manuscripts thus: "The best skill, that Mr Butler physician
had in Nigromancia, with Agrippas occulta philosophia: as his
coosen Ponder upon his Oathe often repeated, seriously intimated
unto mee". Harvey also owned "A notable Journal of an
experimental Magitian"; and, above all, he acquired the actual
working papers in magic of Simon Forman, most notorious and most
successful of English magicians.26
That Harvey concealed some great
secret is clear enough from his own manuscript notes. At the start
of 1583 his brother Richard published An Astrological Discourse
Conjunction of the two superiour Planets, Saturne
& Jupiter, which shall happen the 28. day of April, 1583.
He predicted, perhaps a little overoptimistically, the Second
Coming of Christ for that day. Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton,
a Roman Catholic, bore no good will towards the Earl of Leicester,
or his Puritan clique, which included the Sidney circle. Howard
rushed out in 1683 A defensive against the poyson of supposed
Prophesies, a brilliant spiking of the three Harvey brothers
(all ardent astrologers). In his Epistle Dedicatorie, Howard writes,
"I have both heard and read of certaine persons, who for
the space of many yeeres
have challenged unto themselves
withall, a peremptorie censure in all matters, aspiring only to
this point at height of credite, that presumption may prescribe
against desart, & and their voices be regarded as Apollo's
oracles". Howard goes on, "They persue with eager appetite
into the knowledge of such matters as are farre above their reach",
but since "the learned judges of their skill desire no Company
with Crassus they are wont smile in Temple and to whine in Angulo".
Disingenuously, Howard urges them to "looke into the workes
of God, with eyes of humblenesse, not pore into the secretes of
his purpose with the spectacles of vaine glorie". In his
main text, Howard makes a curious barbed remark which seems to
foreshadow the "School of Night" controversy that flourished
about the start of the 1590's. He states, "if wee will exemplifie
these Antichrists in persons of this age, I find not any more
like to support their feates, then our Astrologers, who set up
a new plot of Heaven, and a new Schoole of earthe, and a new kinde
Gabriel Harvey wrote down on the
20th July 1583 apropos Howard's venomous book, "I wis it
is not the Astrological Discourse, but a more secret mark, whereat
he shootith. A serpent lies hidden in the grass: and it will remain
concealed even now by me. Patience, the best remedy in such booteles
conflicts. God give me, and my Friends, Caesars memory, to forget
only injuries, offered by other
I have found nothing to throw further light on this tantalising
statement. But in Pierces Supererogation a decade later
Harvey inserts a resonant passage, which stands on its own, apparently
unrelated to the rest of his material. Harvey writes, "Compare
old, and new histories, of farr, & neere countries: and you
shall finde the late manner of Sworne Brothers, to be no
mere fashion, but an ancient guise, and heroicall order; devised
for necessity, continued for security, and mainetayned for proffite,
Alas, the censorship of the bishops
brought a premature end to the feud with its promising future.
In June 1599 they decreed that "noe Satyrs or Epigrams be
printed hereafter" and "That all NASHES bookes and Doctor
HARVEYS bookes be taken wheresoever they be found and that none
of their bookes be ever printed hereafter".30
A truly savage decision. Perhaps the bitter exchanges had let
too much out of the bag - revelations with wider implications.
In February 1601 John Lyly offered to spy on the Essex rebels
for Sir Robert Cecil, promising to "turn all my forces and
friends to feed on" them.31
Shakespeare was a glover's son,
and a son to boot who spoke the language of gloves as if it were
as natural for him as breathing.32
No other writer in imaginative literature has made so much play
with the imagery of the glove. But, of course, the glove had a
status in Elizabethan-Jacobean England hard to understand today.
It was a luxury item, replete with status and complex symbolic
meanings - and made a highly regarded gift.33
Robert Higford, in 1571, sent harvest
gloves to the wife of Lawrence Banister. In 1609 J. Beaulieu told
William Trumbull that "My Lord hath bestowed 50s. in a pair
of gloves for Monsr. Marchant in acknowledgement of his sending
unto him the pattern of stairs". At New Year 1605/6 the royal
musicians presented "ech of them one payre of perfumed playne
gloves" to King James. In 1563 the Earl of Hertford, direly
out of favour with the Queen, beseeched Lord Robert Dudley thus:
he desired "a reconciliation, and begs he will present the
Queen, on his behalf, with a poor token of gloves".34
Gloves were a customary New Year's
gift, sometimes being substituted for by "glove-money".
And gloves were the traditional gift of suitors - of lovers -
to their betrothed. In Much Ado about Nothing Hero, daughter
to Leonato, mentions, "these gloves, the count sent me, they
are an excellent perfume" (III. iv.). The glove signified
a deep reciprocal bond between giver and receiver in many situations.
The Clown, in The Winter's Tale, remarks that "If
I were not in love with Mopsa, thou shouldst take no money of
me; but being enthralled as I am, it will also be the bondage
of certain ribbons and gloves" (IV. iv.). In Henry V
the King exchanges gloves with the lowly soldier Williams (IV.
But gloves also played a part in
the customs of formal fraternities. Robert Plot, in The Natural
History of Stafford-shire (1686), tells that it was the custom
among the freemasons "when any are admitted [into membership],
they call a meeting
which must consist at least of 5 or
6 of the Antients of the Order, whom the candidates present with
gloves, and so likewise to their wives
At Canterbury College, Oxford, in 1376-7, the Warden recorded
in the accounts the "even twenty pence given" for "glove
money" ("pro cirotecis") to all the masons
engaged in rebuilding the College.36
This points to an old tradition with the masons of providing gloves.
George Weckherlin, poet and under-secretary of state at Whitehall,
sent gloves to Lewis Ziegler, agent to Lord Craven, in February
1634. In December 1637 Weckherlin drew the sign of the Rosicrucians
5 above Ziegler's name.37
Perhaps the freemasons were being imitated. The glove giving habit
was already actually codified in the Schaw statutes38
of December 1599, approved at Lodge Kilwinning in Scotland, which
laid down that all fellows of the craft, at their admissions,
were to pay the lodge £10 Scots with ten shillings worth
Love's Labour's Lost
has kept Shakespeare buffs rhapsodically frustrated for several
generations. It is perhaps the most teasing of his plays, constantly
hinting at hidden meanings. Even worse, it appears to be the only
one of his plays whose plot he thought up himself! It provoked
Frances Yates to write an entire book about it, a book which remains,
after half a century, still the best thing on the subject. The
basic situation of the play is made clear in the very first speech
that Ferdinand, King of Navarre, intones:
"Our late edict shall strongly
stand in force:
Navarre shall be the wonder of the
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living
You three, Berowne, Dumain, and
Have sworn for three years' term
to live with me,
My fellow-scholars, and to keep
That are recorded in this schedule
Your oaths are pass'd; and now subscribe
That his own hand may strike his
That violates the smallest branch
(I. i. 11-21).
Despite the "votaries"
of the acaademe pledging themselves to three years celibacy, the
visiting ladies, led by the Princess of France, finally subvert
their resolution by winning their hearts. The allusions flash
by in a constantly jesting manner. But I wish to single out one
allusion in particular, which to my knowledge has never been unbottled
The glove makes it appearance in
the final scene (V. ii.) - twice. The Princess says, "But,
Katherine, what was sent to you from fair Dumain?" Katherine
replies, "Madame, this glove". The Princess retorts,
"Did he not send you twain?" to which Katherine answers,
"Yes, Madam; and moreover,/ Some thousand verses of a faithful
lover;" (47-50). All this, at least, is plain sailing: the
suitor Dumain has sent a pair of gloves, which Katharine has accepted.
Rather more complex is the case of the love-stricken Berowne,
I here protest,
By this white glove (how white the
hand, God knows),
Henceforth my wooing mind shall
In russet yeas and honest kersey
Berowne's white glove has not materialized
in the play before. And it probably would have been totally improper
or unthinkable for a lady to have sent him a pair. So what was
the function of the glove? He proceeds in the very next line to
swear to Rosaline, "My love to thee is sound, sans crack
or flaw", and the joke, I believe, lies in his swearing an
oath of love on a white glove that the courtly audience would
have assumed to have been received within the circle of his fraternity.
They would have automatically related it to an initiation. In
saying, "how white the hand, God knows", Berowne is
confessing that he has put in jeopardy his virtue by breaking
his oath of initiation. But there is a double irony - for what
is the value, or sincerity, of a love pledge made upon such a
For an authority on the relationship
of hands to oaths, I would turn to Thomas Dekker. In his play
of 1602 he has Sir Walter Terill exclaim,
"An oath! why 'tis the traffic
of the soul,
'Tis law within a man; the seal
The lord of every conscience; unto
We set our thoughts like hands:
Berowne's glove problem, I suggest,
hints at Navarre's "little academe" being a utopianistic
masonic lodge, and this raises fascinating possibilities. Ferdinand
King of Navarre puts one in mind of Ferdinando Lord Strange, patron
of a theatrical company with which Shakespeare was closely associated
up to at least the Autumn of 1592. As Professor Honigmann, among
others, has pointed out, Love's Labour's Lost is replete
with allusions to Shakespeare's patron.39
The name Ferdinand attached to the King was most likely a conceit
chosen to humour him, as well as possibly relating to the origins
of the play in a private entertainment for Lord Strange's coterie
of friends. Ferdinando was unquestionably keen about theatre.
Oddly, Navarre is never actually called Ferdinand in performance,
although he is so named in the stage directions and speech prefixes
of the first Quarto. Presumably it was thought in bad taste to
draw the groundlings' attention in the public theatres to the
resemblance between Navarre and Lord Strange.
In the mythology of the play one
allusion has stood out beyond all others this century. In Act
IV Scene iii the King exclaims - thus launching a thousand academic
foot-notes - "Black is the badge of hell,/ The hue of dungeons
and the school of night". To what or whom was he referring?
Was it to Sir Walter Ralegh and his alleged "school of atheists"?
Ralegh, by the way, had intervened to protect some of the Martin
Marprelate conspirators. Was it to the poet George Chapman - whom
Shakespeare overtly scorned in two remarks - and his pals such
a Matthew Roydon? Chapman had published in 1594 his long poem
The Shadow of Night. Its dedication to Roydon contains
the famous passage,
"I remember my good Mat. how
joyfully oftentimes you reported unto me, that most ingenious
Darbie, deepe searching Northumberland, and skill-embracing heire
of Hunsdon had most profitably entertained learning in themselves,
to the vitall warmth of freezing science,
The occult ethos implied by those
few lines is a rich quarry indeed! Were these the patrons of the
School of Night? "Most ingenious Darbie" was Ferdinando
Lord Strange, his father having died on the 25th September 1593.
It is a vein of inquiry that I shall not pursue, except to add
one fresh observation to the ongoing debate. Lord Strange's men
acted at court on the 27th December for three successive years
That day is the day of St. John the Evangelist - and the traditional
assembly day of the freemasons.
The masonic legend of King Athelstan
was somewhat polished up by James Anderson for The New Book
of Constitutions of 1738. He tells how Athelstan "at
first left the Craft to the Care of his Brother Edwin" and
how Edwin "purchased a Free Charter of King Athelstan his
Brother for the Free Masons having among themselves a CORRECTION,
or a power and Freedom to regulate themselves, to amend what might
happen amiss, and to hold an yearly Communication in a general
Assembly". Edwin "summon'd all the Free and Accepted
Masons in the realm, to meet him in a Congregation at YORK, who
came and form'd the Grand Lodge under him as their Grand Master,
Apart from the relation of this
tale in the Old charges of the freemasons, no independent evidence
has ever been found to substantiate the story. The "1583"
version of the Old Charges - commonly known as Grand Lodge
MS No. 1 - has been subject recently to a rigorous scrutiny
by Dr S.C. Aston, who in casting around for contemporaneous Elizabethan
references to Athelstan, has come up with only one (apart from
mentions in historians such as Speed and Stowe).42
Thomas Dekker, a facile playwright with a penchant for magical
themes, produced a version of the Fortunatus story, derived
from the minor sub-Faustian German book first published in 1509,
which had possibly been "Englished" by the well known
hack writer Thomas Churchyard ("T.C."), an old friend
of Oxford's. In 1600 William Aspley entered the play with the
Stationers' Register as "A commedie called Fortunatus in
his newe lyverie". Dekker worked on the revision, or expansion,
of the play in the late 1599, which had first been seen a few
years earlier. He was paid £6 from the 9th to the 30th November
for "the hole history of Fortunatus", was given £1
on the 31st November for "altering the Booke" and £2
on the 12th December "for the ende of Fortewnatus for the
By the standards of the time these are extraordinarily high payments
for what appears to be play doctoring. Henslowe, the financial
brains of the Lord Admiral's men, never paid a penny more than
necessary for anything. This court commission evidently had extra-special
significance attached to it.
What relevance Athelstan, the 10th
century Anglo-Saxon monarch, had to the late Medieval tale of
Fortunatus, which is exclusively centred on events in Cyprus
and Asia, is hard to imagine. The original geographical and historical
locale has been given a violent wrench by Dekker in order to introduce
a British context, which is preposterously unhistorical, even
in its own terms, weirdly mixing Athelstan with Scottish as well
as English characters - unless, that is, "Athelstan"
is a guise for James VI of Scotland, who, as happens in the play,
had been the object of magical workings. The North Berwick witchcraft
trials took place in 1590-1; the complicity of the Earl of Bothwell
had emerged in April 1591.44
It is a poor play and soon forgot.
What was its function? I strongly suspect that play in the version
we know was a masonic pièce d'occasion. Dekker -
or a man at court - insisted on having Athelstan, the legendary
patron of the freemasons, for the King, when he could have chosen
almost anyone. Was he making an analogy between Athelstan and
James of Scotland because he was aware, among other things, of
James' links with freemasonry? The famous Schaw statutes were
promulgated at Lodge Kilwinning in Scotland in 1598 and 1599.
One doubts they would have proceeded so far without James' foreknowledge
and approval. William Schaw, after all, was James' Clerk of Works.
The play has another path to secret ritualism: there is a character
called Shadow, servant to Fortunatus, and it becomes progressively
clear that he owns his name in virtue of the mythology of the
Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece. The Shadows or Shades
were the spirits of the Dead in Hades. Shadow may have been the
germ from which sprang the scene with the Shades in Shakespeare's
The Tempest. Old Fortunatus displays one striking
affinity with Love's Labour's Lost. Both plays feature
a French nobleman called Longaville.
But there are other aspects of the
play with clear masonic implications. The court performance of
1599 took place on the night of the 27th December, St. John the
Evangelist's day - the annual assembly - and feast day of the
freemasons, and later of the Rosicrucians. It was acted by the
Edward Alleyn-Philip Henslowe company, the Lord Admiral's Men.
According to James Anderson (but alas, no independent corroboration
of his genealogy has ever surfaced), the then Lord Admiral, Charles
Howard, Lord Effingham, was the Grand Master of the freemasons
in the South of England until 1588.45
Nor can we ignore the strong masonic resonance of the "Epilogue
for the Court". The expression "God the great Architect
of the Universe" has become a masonic platitude. Close to
it in spirit are these lines from the Epilogue, which refer to
the length of Elizabeth's reign:
"And that heaven's great Arithmetician,
(who in the Scales of Nomber weyes
May still to fortie two, add one
Finally, there are two speeches
belonging to Fortunatus in Act II Scene ii, which seem designed
to permit the ventilating of a markedly pointed image. Fortunatus
first says, "Boyes be proud, your Father hath the whole world
in this compasse
", and then later boasts, "Listen,
my sonnes: In this small compass lies,/ Infinite treasure
The compass - a prime symbol among the freemasons - was surely
introduced to produce a frisson of excited appreciation among
the assembled masons at court!
If, as I suspect, Love's Labour's
Lost was performed at court on St. John the Evangelist's day,
then we have probably stumbled on a common seam running through
productions arranged for that date. Old Fortunatus was
expensively revised for the court performance; and the Shakespeare
piece, besides being played at court "this last Christmas",
was "Newly corrected and augmented", according to the
first Quarto. Many plays were done at court; few were expressly
revamped for the ocasion. These were special occasions undoubtedly.
I have come across two other St. John's day events which seem
to conform to the pattern. On December 27th 1604 a masque was
held at court to celebrate the marriage of Philip Herbert, Earl
of Montgomery, to Lady Susan de Vere, daughter of the Earl of
Oxford. Philip Herbert, together with his elder brother William
Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was dedicatee - famously so - of the
First Shakespeare Folio of 1623. According to James Anderson,
William Herbert became a Grand Warden of the English masons in
1607 and their Grand Master in 1618.46
Although this particular masque has not survived as far as we
know, we have a description of its participants. Among "The
Actors were, the Earl of Pembroke, the Lord Willoughby, Sir Samuel
Hays, Sir Thomas Germain, Sir Robert Carey, Sir John Lee, Sir
Richard Preston, and Sir Thomas Bager
Sir Robert Carey was the youngest son of the first Lord Hunsdon.
He had been a friend at Oxford of Thomas Lodge, who later became
the collaborator of Robert Greene. Charles Nicholl suggests that
Carey was Thomas Nashe's benefactor in 1594 and that the character
Domino Bentivole in Have with you to Saffron-Walden
was based on him.48
Sir Richard Preston, better known as Lord Dingwall, maintained
a chemical laboratory; in 1613 Michael Maier the Rosicrucian presented
him with a copy of Arcana arcanissima. Out fourth notable
St. John's day event at court was the betrothal of the Elector
Palatine and the Princess Elizabeth on the 27th December 1612.
It has been suggested that The Tempest was played on that
date. Certainly, it is almost indisputable now that the masque
scene in the play was inserted to celebrate their wedding.49
The Elector Palatine and his bride were to become the de facto
patrons of the Rosicrucians, and the St. John's day betrothal
points to a remarkably early convergence of masonic and Rosicrucian
interests. More research has still to be done on St. John's day
court activities; I cannot believe it will be entirely unproductive.
There is one other particularly
interesting Elizabethan personality, whom Anderson makes mention
of in The New Book of Constitutions. He rcounts how Elizabeth,
"being jealous of all secret Assemblies", sent "an
armed Force to break up" the freemason's Grand Lodge at York
on St. John's day 1561. But Sir Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst,
the Grand Master, "took Care to make some of the Chief Men
sent Free-Masons, who then joining in that Communication, made
a very honourable Report to the Queen; and she never more attempted
to dislodge or disturb them
" Sackville allegedly gave
up the Grand Mastership in 1567.50
Anderson - as if himself uncertain
of the veracity of the tale - guards his position by uniquely
writing in a marginal note, "This Tradition was firmly believ'd
by all the old English Masons". Since 1738 nothing has surfaced
to give it credence. But circumstantial evidence does point to
the 1560's as being a period of masonic activity. The Levander-York
manuscript of the Old Charges was copied circa 1740 from a manuscript
Dr Aston, in analysing the "1583" Old Charges known
as Grand Lodge MS No. 1, asserts that the mention there
of "Naymus Grecus clearly derives, I think, from Alcuin's
Carmen", which came into print in 1562 and 1564. And
the Earl of Oxford poem, Labour and its Reward, with its
mysterious masonic reference, was published in 1573.
The implications of Sackville being
a freemason would be tremendous. Giordano Bruno published La
Cena de le Ceneri in 1584. He relates how he was introduced
to Sackville by John Florio, the linguist and great translator
of Montaigne, and Matthew Gwinne, the later friend of Robert Fludd,
and how he supped at Sackville's house before proceeding to a
Sackville was a major early Elizabethan poet and part author of
the seminal play Gorboduc. And John Dee recorded in his
diary for the 7th December 1594 that "by the chief motion
of the Lord Admiral [Lord Effingham - a Grand Master according
to Anderson], and somewhat of the Lord Buckhurst, the Queen's
wish were to the Lord Archbishop presently that I should have
Dr. Day his place in Powles".53
Copy of a drawing recently discovered
in British Library Mss Harley 1927 f. 76 verso. The manuscript
belonged to Randle Holme III, the 17th century Chester freemason
and herald. Showing a hand with a compass, and with the inscription
of "Constantia et labore", it is drawn on a page with
the dates "1621" and "July 1639" on the back.
Randle Holme III probably was the artist.
List of companies performing at
the court of Elizabeth I on St. John the Evangelist's Day - December
27th. Taken from "Dramatic Records in the Declared Accounts
of the Treasurer of the Chamber 1558-1642" The Malone
Society 1961 (1962).
1579 Earl of Sussex's men
1581 Lord Hunsdon's men
1583 Children of the Earl of Oxford
1584 Lord Admiral's men
1586 Earl of Leicester's Players
1587 Children of Paul's (John Lyly's
1589 Lord Strange's men
1590 Lord Strange's men
1591 Lord Strange's men
1595 Lord Hunsdon's men
1596 Lord Chamberlain's men (possibly
Love's Labour's Lost)
1597 Lord Admiral's men
1598 Lord Admiral's men
1600 Lord Admiral's men
Comment: There are many omissions
in the "Declared Accounts", and among them is a listing
of the performance (of Old Fortunatus) by the Lord Admiral's
men in December 1599, although the Quarto implies this happened.
The Quarto of Love's Labour's Lost of 1598 states "As
it was presented before her Highnes this last Christmas".
But Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's men, did not
perform at court in December 1597, if we are to believe the "Declared
Accounts". However, the Lord Chamberlain's men did perform
at court on 26th December 1597 (E.K. Chambers The Elizabethan
Stage IV. p.111).
1. Although not a freemason, I have
received invaluable assistance in my inquiries from John Hamill
and his staff at United Grand Lodge Library. R.F. Gould A Concise
History of Freemasonry (1903) p.60.
2. I am grateful to Mr Jack Shackleford
for this information.
3. Monsieur de Thou's History
of His Own Time
(1730) ed. B. Wilson vol. II p. cxxix.
Roger Nyle Parisious would wish me to point out that he encountered
the de Thou reference in Abel Lefranc, the great French literary
4. A.L.Rowse ed. The Case Book
of Simon Forman (Picador ed.) p. 53. T. Nashe The Terrors
of the Night
in The Unfortunate Traveller and other
Works ed. J.B. Steane p.230. S. Harsnett A Declaration
of Egregious Popish Impostures
(1603) p. 258 ff.
5. G. Anstruther Vaux of Harrowden.
A Recusant Family pp. 163-4, 440-2.
6. G. Ungerer A Spaniard in Elizabeth's
England: the Correspondence of Antonio Pérez's Exile
vol. II p. 409.
7. James Anderson The New Book
of Constitutions (1738) p. 105.
8. J. Hamill The Craft pp.
30-1. This is the best short introduction to the history of freemasonry
- with a strongly sceptical approach to sources.
9. On the controversy a very good
introduction is to be found in Charles Nicholl A Cup of News,
from which I plagiarize unashamedly.
10. J. Hamill op. cit. p.70.
"Deacons are first heard of in Ireland in the early 1730's"
writes Hamill. It would seem, on our new evidence, that they had
been exported to Ireland from England, then re-exported back from
Ireland to England.
11. The Unfortunate Trav.
ed. Steane p. 274.
12. Quoted in Nicholl op. cit.
13. Ibid. p. 175. 14. Ibid.
15. Ibid. p. 54. E.G. Harman Gabriel
Harvey and Thomas Nashe p. 154. In Pierces Supererogation
Harvey made explicit that he knew Lyly was Papp-hatchet: "Surely
Euphues was someway a pretty fellow: would God Lilly alwaies been
Euphues and never Paphatchet."
16. R. Harvey A Theological
Discourse of the Lamb of God and his Enemies p. 117.
17. See Oxford English Dictionary;
Rolls of Parliament vol. IV p. 292.
18. R. Warwick Bond Complete
Works of John Lyly vol. I. pp. 28-9.
19. Cardanus Comforte was
a work by Jerome Cardan. The Oxford poem is most conveniently
to be found in Shakespeare Identified 3rd ed. vol. I p.
572 by J. Thomas Looney ed. Ruth Lloyd Miller. The failure of
the Oxfordians to have made anything of such a major allusion
printed in their current "Bible" says something, I suppose,
about the quality of Oxfordian research.
20. Works of Gabiel Harvey
vol. II p. 133 ed. A.B. Grosart.
21. R.B. McKerrow ed. Works of
Thomas Nashe (1966) vol. III p. 45.
22. Ibid. p. 46. 23. Works
vol. II p. 133.
24. Quoted in E.G. Harman op.cit.
25. Works of Gabriel Harvey
vol. II p. 293.
26. D. Knoop, G.P. Jones & D.
Hamer The Early Masonic Catechisms (1943) pp.99, 74. Hugh
Platt, The Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594), p. 43-4,
writes: "How to speake by signes only without the uttering
of any word
the rest of the letters which be consonants,
may be understood by touching of several parts of your body, of
several gestures, countenances, or actions." Platt knew Alexander
Dicson, who taught the Art of Memory, well. Dicson had been a
friend of Bruno's. Gabriel Harvey's Marginalia ed. G.C.
Moore Smith pp.214-5.
27. Henry Howard A defensative
against the poyson of supposed Prophesies (1620 ed.) p. 112.
This very fine, revised edition was probably brought out to counter-attack
the wave of Rosicrucian prognostication.
28. V.F. Stern Gabriel Harvey
29. Works of Gabriel Harvey
vol. II p. 77.
30. Quoted in T. Dekker A Knights
Conjuring (1607) ed. L.M. Robbins p. 30. Even the barest mention
of works published by the feudists brought on the wrath of the
censors, as Dekker discovered.
31. Marquess of Salisbury MSS
vol. XI Feb. 27, 1600-1.
32. S. Schoenbaum William Shakespeare
pp. 16-17 & 75. E.I. Fripp Shakespeare: Man and Artist
i. pp. 79-80.
33. A Valuable account of glove
customs is given in John Brand Observations on the Popular
Antiquities of Great Britain (Bohn ed.) vol. II pp. 125-7.
R. Chambers The Book of Days vol. i. p. 31 has interesting
tales also. On gloves and freemasonry see Harry Carr "Two
Pairs of White Gloves" in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum
vol. LXXV (1962).
34. Marquess of Salisbury MSS
vol. I p. 512. Marquess of Downshire MSS vol. II J. Beaulieu
letter of Nov. 12 1609. D. Poulton John Dowland p. 409.
Cal. of State Pap. (Dom.) 1547-80 p. 221.
35 J. Hamill op. cit. p.
36. His. MSS Com. 5th Report
Appendix pp. 450-1. "Cirotecis" would be correctly
written today "chirothecis".
37. Weckherlin Diary among the Trumbull
Papers recently acquired by the British Library (no classification
no. at time of writing).
38. Harry Carr article op. cit.
39. It should be mentioned that
in The Merry Wives of Windsor (I.i.) Slender swears to
Falstaff "by these gloves" that Pistol had picked his
purse. E.A.J. Honigmann Shakespeare: the "lost years"
40. On the "School of Night"
see Frances A. Yates A Study of 'Love's Labour's Lost'
(1936). The British Library has recently acquired an extraordinary
manuscript in an unknown hand which contains notes on the thought
of Thomas Harriot, the leading mathematician and alleged "atheist"
in the Ralegh circle, as well as 63 lines from Henry IV Part
I by Shakespeare, Brit. Lib. Add. Ms. 64,078. On these performance
dates see Appendix.
41. J. Anderson New Book of Constitutions
42. Dr Aston's benchmark paper is
due for publication in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum in November
43. Shakespeare's friend, the printer
Richard Field, entered The History of Fortunatus on the
Stationers' Register on 22nd June 1615. Churchyard contributed
"addresses" to Cardanus Comforte (1573). In 1591
he hired lodgings for the Earl of Oxford, giving his own bond
for payment. But the penniless Oxford decamped, leaving the luckless
Churchyard having to seek sanctuary to avoid jailing for debt.
That a man with Oxford's moral sense could have written the Shakespeare
plays strikes me as a dubious proposition. Dramatic Works of
Thomas Dekker vol. I ed. Fredson Bowers p. 107. Cyrus Hoy
in 'The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker'
vol. I p. 71.
44. Caroline Bingham James VI
of Scotland pp. 130-2. Athelstan, however, did defeat the
Scots in battle.
45. J. Anderson op. cit.
46. Ibid. pp. 98-9.
47. John Nichols The Progresses
of King James the First vol. I pp. 470-1. "Bager"
was almost certainly Sit Thomas Badger. He and Sir Thomas Germain
appeared regularly in court masques over the years.
48. C. Nicholl op. cit. pp.
49. F.A. Yates The Rosicrucian
Enlightenment p. 3. The Tempest ed. Frank Kermode pp.
50. J. Anderson op. cit.
pp. 80-1. Anderson's list of Grand Masters also has: "Francis
Russel, Earl of Bedford in the North; Sir Thomas Gresham in the
South 1570"; after Charles Howard, Lord Effingham, George
Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, was G.M. till the death of Queen
Elizabeth. Inigo Jones became G.M. in 1607. Or at least, so Anderson
51. D. Knoop and G.P. Jones The
Genesis of Freemasonry p. 76.
52. Frances Yates' John Florio
is excellent. On Gwinne, see Dictionary of National Biography.
Gwinne's brother was apothecary to Charles Howard, Lord Effingham,
a Grand Master, says Anderson. Gwinne was medical fellow at St.
John's College, Oxford, when Robert Fludd studied there. Gwinne
was made M.D. at Oxford in July 1593 on the recommendation of
53. Private Diary of Dr. John
Dee ed. J.O. Halliwell (1842).