SHAKESPEARE AND THE ANGLO-SPANISH WAR, 1585-1604
By Captain Bernard M Ward (1893-1945)
From 'Revue Anglo-Americaine' of December 1929; and reprinted in Volume 2 of Looney's Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford
Summary: Interesting claim, backed with archival research, that 'Shakespeare' presumably didn't write his plays under conditions of peace and prosperity, but during a generation-long 'total' war. Ward is drawing on, or projecting back, his experience of the 'Great War'. Ward is incurious about the starts of wars: he assumes the First World War was in Britain's national interest; and he assumes war against Spain allied with Holland was justified.
Spanish Armada: if we project the genesis of modern wars backward in time, it's entirely possible that Spain's belligerent group which no doubt/we have been told included Philip II of Spain was financed by Jewish money. The loss of the Armada to storms must have (in effect) marked the loss of a huge investment. Captain Ward is something of a simple soldier and is unaware of such matters; however it would seem that England suffered famine. Possibly (I simply don't know) the trick of funding both sides in wars was learned from the Spanish fiasco. [RW - note 20 May 2014]
Square brackets contain my notes on diagrams, tables, charts, dates, and other material - RW
In spite of the fierce searchlight that historical investigators have concentrated on the Elizabethan era, the reign of Elizabeth has been more fruitful of dissention and controversy than any other in English history. The Shakespeare problem is but one example of that curious paradox. The most studied period in English history has given rise to a wider divergence of opinion than any other. Shakespeare, we are told, left Stratford and came to London about the time of the defeat of the Spanish armada. He attached himself to one of the noblemen's companies playing in and around London. His advent to the metropolis coincided with a tremendous boom in the drama. New theatres were being built every day. Taking advantage of this boom he commenced his career as a playwright by furbishing up old plays and learning the necessary technique. During this period he had many rivals: Marlowe, Greene, Peele, ... Kyd, and others, with whom he was competing to win the favour of the theatre-going public. By 1595 he had annihilated all his rivals. His plays were by far the most popular because he had made a careful study of the public taste. Even one of his earliest efforts, Henry VI, 1590 or so, drew as [Thomas] Nash tells us, at least 10,000 spectators. In 1596 came Falstaff, and a few years later Malvolio, two characters whose popularity was unequalled. These great successes coupled with his one-eighth share in the profits of the Globe Theatre enabled him to build up a considerable fortune. In 1597 he bought New Place. And so on and so on. In brief, the picture we get is one of a prosperous and merrie England, a great theatrical boom, a young and aspiring playwright, quick to seize his opportunity, a brief period of competition with his rivals, and so on. Now, is this a correct picture of the theatrical conditions under which the Shakespeare plays were written? Were these plays, most of which were admittedly written during the reign of Elizabeth, produced under normal competitive conditions of peace, and at a time when England was enjoying a great boom in national prosperity?
Emphatically, no. The plays were produced during the stress and strain of a great war, a war that is comparable in every respect with the war of 1914-18, except that it lasted nearly a generation instead of four years, a war in which the distress and suffering of the English civil population were on a par with our own recent experiences, and with those of our great-grandfathers during the Napoleonic Wars. How is this possible? the reader will exclaim. I have read many lives of Shakespeare, I have read many books about the Elizabethan stage, but never once has this war even been mentioned. Exactly; that is just what I said to myself when I came across the proofs about the great Anglo-Spanish war that I will now place before the readers.
[Pp. 456-7: a printed table which shows (a) the total annual revenue, (b) the total annual expenditure on the Royal Navy and the field armies from 1584-1602 inclusive.]
These figures are remarkable and put an entirely new complexion onto the last seventeen years of Elizabeth's reign. [NB: strictly speaking, a comparison ought to be made with intervals of peace; otherwise how do we know the 'normal' percentage spent on war? - RW] First of all, we should realise that the Elizabethan exchequer was a hard cash concern. Paper money was unknown; there was no national debt. Every payment was made at the exchequer on account of revenue, e.g. taxation, sale of crown lands, temporary loans, etc. It was made in bags containing coins of the realm. Similarly every payment made out of the exchequer was made in bags containing coins of the realm. In other words, the whole cost of the war had to be met by hard cash, day by day, month by month, year by year.
[He explains where his figures come from: revenue figures taken from Revenue Day Books, preserved in the Public Record Office, E401/1835-1871. The expenditure figures also from three series of volumes, E403/2270-2284. Also the abstract of tellers' views of payments, summary E405/438-445, and departmental payment books, E403/2426-2429. And, he says, these series are more or less complete. He gets these figures for 1586 to 1602:]
Summary of total revenue: 6.77 million
Total expenditure on the army and navy 4.92 million
Total expenditure on court and civil administration 1.86 million
So.. average annual expenditure on the army and navy was 73% of the whole, 289,000. The average annual expenditure on court and civil administration was 109,000 or 27% of the whole. .. out of this last item the Queen had to pay all the expenses of the chamber and the House of Lords, civil servants' salaries, pensions to crown annuitants, upkeep of crown buildings, garrison at the Scottish border, garrisons that defended seaports, merchant ships' subsidy, postal service, law expenses, her wardrobe and goldsmiths' bills etc. At the same time she was spending nearly three times as much on her fighting services, and yet no biographer of Shakespeare's so much as hinted that there was a war in progress while the plays were being written and acted. All historians have unanimously asserted that the Queen persistently starved her army and navy of money. One modern authority actually goes so far as to say that it is a misnomer to call the Anglo-Spanish war a war at all. Need we wonder that all historians and biographers have given us a picture of the last seventeen years of Elizabeth's reign that is utterly false and meaningless from beginning to end?*
[*Footnotes: Three military historians are quoted, all of whom say things like: 'The army and navy were starved of money and it was no thanks to the Queen that the Armada or the Spanish Armada was repelled'. It occurs to me (RW) to wonder how much of a threat the armada actually was.]
The plain truth is that the Anglo-Spanish War was a great war in exactly the same sense as our recent struggle with Germany from 1914-18 was a great war. Although this has been sufficiently proved, I propose to make three further comparisons: taxation: from 1558-88, taxation had remained fairly constant. In 1589 it was doubled; in 1593 it was trebled [sic]; and in 1601 it was quadrupled. Before 1914, the English budgets were about 200 million a year. Since 1918, they have been about 800 million a year, a fourfold increase [sic]. .. food prices: in the decade immediately preceding the Anglo-Spanish war, the average price of wheat was 17 shillings a quarter; during the first decade of war, 1585-94, the price was on average 25 shillings/quarter. During the last decade, 1595-1604, the average price was 35s [20 shillings=£1 -RW], an increase of 106%. If we take the index number of the retail price of food in England, 1914 [as 100].. in 1918 it was 215, and increase of 115%.
[Famine:] there was a shortage of food that practically amounted to a famine: suffering was correspondingly great. A preacher at Oxford said of the famine, it makyth the poor to pinch for hunger, and the children to cry in the streets, not knowing where to have bread. Newcastle town accounts through spring and early summer include payments for burying poor folk who died for want in the streets, and for victuals for the relief of the sick folk 'afield and within town'. Prohibitive prices occurred in the Midlands, Oxford and Norfolk. A pamphlet of 1597 says 'the complaint of the poor through penury in England hath continued long, Christian reader, and yet it appeareth the want groweth greater.' In February 1917, two-thirds of the way through the war with Germany, the unrestricted submarine campaign was embarked upon by the Germans, and in a few months England was on the brink of starvation. Only by the narrowest margin and with rationing was catastrophe averted. What a very different background to the writing and acting of Shakespeare plays is here presented from the peace, prosperity and merrie England picture that biographers of Shakespeare would have us believe. What is the inference that we can draw from these facts? Surely it is that the condition of the civil population of England during the last seventeen years so far from being peaceful and prosperous was exactly the reverse. All the nightmares that follow in the wake of a great war - taxation, soaring food prices, and famine - were found in the same degree of intensity. We must therefore rid our minds of all existing conceptions about Shakespeare's England, and substitute suffering, hunger, want and penury, a picture that we of this present generation can fully comprehend because we have just undergone exactly the same sufferings that our ancestors did. We are now able to understand the complete failure of Shakespeare's biographers and critics. They have taken a man who is essentially a wartime dramatist writing under the stress and strain of a great war. They have entirely obscured his historical setting by surrounding him with a purely imaginary atmosphere of peace and prosperity. They have then endeavoured to persuade us that their interpretation of him as a normal competitive peacetime dramatist is natural, straightforward, and intelligible. Need we wonder at the ever-growing body of opinion that refuses to accept these things?
As soon as we place Shakespeare in his proper wartime environment, our thoughts turn to the historical plays. These were all written between 1590 and 1600, apart from Henry VIII, generally admitted to have been partly written by Fletcher, the earliest being Henry VI, first acted on March 3rd, 1591. In 1592 Thomas Nash published his Pierce Pennilesse, in which we find this sentence: 'How it would have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had ?lyen two hundred years in his tomb he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least.' [Part of this quotation is twice in Ogburn - RW] It seems beyond dispute that Nash is referring to Henry VI, and his testimony to the remarkable popularity enjoyed by this play is most interesting. The reason seems obvious: Henry VI is a warlike play and was being acted before a wartime audience. Indeed I believe it was in all probability a piece of deliberately-inspired war propaganda, written with the express intention of arousing the patriotism of the civil population of England. I shall no doubt be asked what proof I have.. Thomas Nash again: '.. that state or kingdom that is in league with all the world and hath no foreign port of exit is not half so strong as that which lives every hour in fear of invasion.. [and so on - RW] .. To this effect the policy of plays is very necessarie, howsoever some shallow-brained censurers, not the deepest searchers into the secret of government, mightily oppugn them. For whereas the afternoon being the idlest time of day wherein men that are their own masters as gentleman of the court, the inns of the court, the number of captains and soldiers about London ... gambling, following of harlots, drinking, or seeing a play. Is it not then better that they should betake them to the least, which is plays? ... to give the people some light toys to busy their heads withal, to prevent them from having leisure to meddle with higher matters, and to represent our forefathers' valiant acts..'
[Three motives for which war propaganda playwrights were writing:] (a) the stratagems of war, as in Henry VI, Tamberlane, Peele's 'Edward I' and the anonymous 'Famous Victories of Henry V' and 'Edward III'. (b) The ill-success of treason, the fall of hasty climbers, the wretched end of usurpers, as in the collapse of Cade's rebellion in Henry VI, and in Marlowe's Edward II, which concludes with the execution of the regicide Mortimer. (c) The misery of civil dissension: compare 'Henry VI' and 'Richard III', which deal with England's misfortunes during the War [sic] of the Roses
[Elizabethan background:] When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, she inherited an empty treasury, a debased coinage, war with France, and a realm torn asunder by a controversy between Lutheranism and Catholicism. The first step was to conclude a treaty of peace with France, then dissolve the religious controversy by the compromise known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, then restore the currency, then replenish the exchequer. For the first twenty-seven years of her reign, England enjoyed almost unbroken peace, and in its wake followed prosperity. The rival monarchies [sic] of France and Spain underwent much less fortunate destinies. France was suffocated into bankruptcy by religious civil wars, and Spain was steadily squandering her resources in an attempt to subdue rebellious Dutch burghers. At this time, Elizabeth and her Lord Treasurer watched and waited. At length, they threw down the challenge to the Spanish giant. In 1585 they agreed to send a Royal army to co-operate against the Spaniards. It was in no light-hearted spirit that the Queen and Lord Burghley entered into death-struggle with Spain. For years they'd employed every diplomatic device to postpone the declaration of war. Once the issue was joined, they prosecuted it with the utmost vigour and determination. It is impossible here to give even the barest outline of the naval and military operations..
[Ward mentions taxation and expenditure. Diagram showing revenue, and another line of naval and military expenditure which closely follows it, with the dates from 1584 to 1604, and propaganda, with plays arranged in sequence:]
'The Famous Victories of Henry V', 'The Troublesome Reign of King John', 'Henry VI' first part, 'Contention (prob. Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster), 'The True Tragedy' (prob. of Richard Duke of Yorke.)
[I couldn't find the author of this. Ogburn 336 says: prob. corrupt pirated 'Shakespeare' -RW], 'Edward I', Marlowe's 'Edward II', and 'Edward III', 'The True Tragedy of Richard III', '3 Henry VI', 'Richard II', 'I Henry V', '2 Henry IV'. And campaigns and so on in parallel on the diagram: the expeditionary forces to the Low Countries in 1585; 1586 Zutphen [where Sir Philip Sidney was killed - RW]; 1588 the Armada; 1591 expeditionary forces to France etc; 1596 Cadiz; 1597 the Islands Voyage; 1598 Tyrone's Rebellion; 1604 peace signed. One of the gravest concerns was probably to prevent the demoralization of the Home Front, to use this comparison with World War 1. Germany's defeat was largely due to the eventual collapse of the civil population under the strain they had to bear. Similarly, the overburdened tax-paying peasants of Castile broke down [sic; note evasion of actual mechanism - RW]; their once fertile valleys became desolate wildernesses.
[p 474 of vol II:] .. Perhaps the real secret of Elizabeth's success lay in her appreciation of the needs of the Home Front. The genius she exercised in holding together her war-torn subjects who were labouring under so great a strain of taxation, high prices and scarcity.. in the opening days of the Great War, 7th August 1914, three days after the declaration of war, the Press Bureau was established by Lord Kitchener, with Lord Birkenhead as its first director. It was called a War Propaganda Bureau.. set up February 1918.. it was enlarged by the appointment of Lord Northcliffe as director of propaganda in enemy countries... Parallel here with a Star Chamber decree of 23 June 1586, with four items: every printer in possession of a press was ordered to report details to the wardens of the Stationers Company within ten days; printing was only allowed in London, Oxford and Cambridge; no-one allowed to print any book, copy, matter, or work unless the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London had looked at it; nothing to be printed against the formal meaning of any restraint ordinance contained in any statute of the realm or against the true intent and meaning of any letters passant, commissions, or prohibitions under the great seal of England. In other words, it is clear from the foregoing that the Queen realised that in time of war it is more than ever [sic] necessary for the government to exercise severe rigid control over the printing-press. ... In Elizabethan days, there were no newspapers and public opinion was influenced partly by the issue of authorized government pamphlets, or mainly, since reading was a rare accomplishment, by government-controlled stage plays, particularly by the exploitation of the now-famous Elizabethan historical dramas. It has been recognised for a long time that a remarkable unanimity in style and sentiment can be traced in the work of the 1590s dramatists, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Peele etc. The cause of this unanimity has been a puzzle. It is not difficult for us with experience of the Great War behind us to see that this unanimity of thought was almost certainly due to some form of government control. In times of war the individuality and independence of the subject have to be subordinated to the needs of the nation. The Elizabethan dramatists were in effect employed in the most important branch of national service at home. In 1604, while the peace negotiations with Spain were in progress, the Earl of Oxford died. The preceding eighteen years had witnessed a remarkable vogue for the warlike chronicle play. Marlowe, Shakespeare, and other dramatists whose names have not come down to us all contributed their quota. With the conclusion of peace, this vogue for historical drama ceased as suddenly as it had began. Does it not follow that these plays represent in the main Elizabethan war propaganda as far as the stage is concerned? After all, Elizabeth was passionately devoted to plays. It would not be extraordinary to find she had subsidised and utilised drama in that way. The following examples give some idea of the range of warlike propaganda to be found in the chronicle plays.
These instances aren't exhaustive, nor is it suggested that they are wholly concerned with propaganda. The primary object of the plays was to interest, amuse and entertain. The propaganda motifs are, as it were, slipped in quite casually. We find a close parallel in the case of two favourite soldier characters, Old Bill as a representative of the men of the Old Contemptibles, is characteristically an English hero, by the very absence of the obvious heroic virtues... Falstaff, in the same way, represents one of the many captains whose deeds would be mostly forgotten, but who carried on in the professional soldierly tradition... Shortly after 1918, a play was produced in London called 'The Better 'Ole'.
- The invincibility of English arms is dealt with in 'The Famous Victories of Henry V' and 'Edward I'.
- The encouragement of patriotism and anti-Catholicism were dealt with in 'The Troublesome Reign of King John'.
- The fate of disloyalty is shown by the execution of the regicide Mortimer in the last scene of 'Edward II'.
- Loyalty to the reigning house, the Tudors, that sprang from the House of Lancaster, is dealt with by exalting the Lancastrians and vilifying the Yorkists, in 'Contention: the True Tragedy', [i.e. the two plays, see note above] 'Henry VI' and 'Richard III'. The inevitable fate of rebels is exemplified by the collapse of Cade's rebellion, in 'Henry VI', and anti-Spanish propaganda is the main theme of 'Edward I'.
This play represented Old Bill, demobilised and back again as a happy and contented proprietor of a public house. It is a well-known tradition that when the Spanish War was virtually over in 1602 Queen Elizabeth expressed a desire to see Falstaff in love, and Shakespeare produced 'The Merry Wives of Windsor', representing old Jack, back once more amongst the barmaids of Windsor. To sum up, when we remember the perils threatening England from Spain and the Pope [sic] on the one hand, and the doubtful succession issue on the other, is it not quite natural that Elizabeth should in 1586 have conceived the idea of a secretly subsidized state department to assist and control the public theatres in order that her subjects might not only be encouraged by such spectacles as English victories over foreign nations and the successful revolt against the tyranny of the Pope, but also that it might be brought home to them that loyalty to the anointed sovereign inevitably triumphed over rebellion? At any rate, Oxford was given £1000 a year of public money from 1586 to 1604. Considering how severe and continuous was the financial pressure throughout the whole period, we may be quite confident that the Queen would never have authorised so large a grant from her depleted exchequer unless she had been thoroughly convinced of the high value of the services rendered by the propaganda department. It is not difficult for us to hold the same conviction when you picture how electrified [sic] the audiences at the inn-yards and theatres must have been, as they listened to the ringing message contained in the closing lines of the anonymous play 'The Troublesome Reign of King John':
If England's peers and people join in oneOr, as Shakespeare put it,
Nor Pope nor France nor Spain can do them wrong
Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them
Naught shall make us rue
If England to itself do stand but true.
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