Oxford and the Armada: The REAL Story
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The Spring 1996 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter includes a
quotation (p. 3) from the British actor Michael York pondering
Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech: "'Afterall (sic),'
he added, 'it's the most famous speech in western literature.
But what does it mean?'"
York said that, as an Oxfordian, such questions take on a whole
new meaning for him. Having a real author in mind, with "real
life" events to illuminate the text, meant that he could think of
Hamlet/Oxford as a man who did literally "take arms against a sea
of troubles" when he took to sea against the Armada in 1588.
Actors always appreciate such insights, and he, as an actor,
appreciated the extra meaning that such a line now yielded.
The idea that Oxford saw action against the Armada may be
traced to such biographers as Ward, who takes a
contemporary ballad at face value (p. 291, note 1):
The graphic description of the Earl "standing on the hatches"
with the Boar on his helmet "foaming for inward ire" conveys the
impression that the ballad was written by someone who actually
saw Oxford standing in full armour on the deck of his ship.
Is it, however, a fact that Oxford "did literally" take to sea
against the Armada in 1588?
It is literally a fact that Oxford did not take to sea (or
to land) against the Armada. Instead, he behaved with such pique
that for the next sixteen years he did not receive a single new
vote from any fellow nobleman for the Order of the Garter.
The facts, as opposed to Oxfordian fictions, are these:
So far as we know, Oxford never owned the ship called the
Edward Bonaventure. Martin Frobisher reported in 1581
that Oxford was interested in buying this ship; the asking price
was L1,800; Oxford's offer of L1,500 was apparently rejected.
The ownership of the Edward Bonaventure is important
because many Oxfordians claim that this very ship was owned,
outfitted, and commanded by Oxford at the time of the Armada.
In any case, the Edward Bonaventure was owned by a
syndicate in 1588, and not by Oxford.
John Knox Laughton,
the great nineteenth-century authority on the
Armada who assembled more documentary evidence on the subject
than anyone before or since, considered the list of noble
warriors which occurs in the literary-historical tradition:
he concluded that it was unlikely that those not mentioned in known
historical documents did in fact serve.
Oxford's name and image do not appear in the famous
Oxford's name does, to be sure, appear in a long line of
These accounts, however, all go back to
a blatant instance of political disinformation perpetrated by
Lord Burghley, a deliberate and calculated distortion of the
Two letters by Robert Dudley earl of Leicester reveal that Oxford
actually refused a direct request to serve as governor of
at the time the Armada was passing up the English Channel, still
dangerously close to English soil.
Oxford's refusal provoked Leicester's thorough disgust.
From 1571 until 1588 Oxford received votes from his fellow
noblemen in varying numbers for the
Order of the Garter.
Beginning with the first post-Armada election, however, support
for Oxford collapsed utterly: he received not a single vote
between 1588 and 1604.
For questions concerning these pages please contact Alan H.
Nelson at [email protected]