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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… That 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…"3 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 in 1588.4 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 its ranks.5

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 no wise."6

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 [1688]; and many of 'em were too hastily burnt in our Time from a Fear of making Discoveries…"7 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 controversy.9 Martin 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 lime."11

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… three notorious 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 more confusion… 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…"14 Gabriel Harvey, in the Advertisement… already mentioned, 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 Discourse… - 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,…"16

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 high degree;
His cottage is compact in paper walls,
And not with brick or stone, as others be."19

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, "…notwithstanding 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…" 21

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 interjections… against you, & the beau-desert & Idees of your encomiasticall Church government…"22

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…"25

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 associated connotations.

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 upon the… 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 of providence".27

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…"28 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, and pleasure".29

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. i.).

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…"35 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 of "gluiffis".

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 world;
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
You three, Berowne, Dumain, and Longaville,
Have sworn for three years' term to live with me,
My fellow-scholars, and to keep those statutes
That are recorded in this schedule here:
Your oaths are pass'd; and now subscribe your names,
That his own hand may strike his honour down
That violates the smallest branch herein:-"

(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 before.

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, who proclaims:

"and I here protest,
By this white glove (how white the hand, God knows),
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express'd
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes."


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 glove?

For an authority on the relationship of hands to oaths, I would turn to Thomas Dekker. In his play Satiro-Mastix… of 1602 he has Sir Walter Terill exclaim,

"An oath! why 'tis the traffic of the soul,
'Tis law within a man; the seal of faith,
The lord of every conscience; unto whom
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 from 1589.40 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, A.D. 926."41

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 corte".43 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 the world)
May still to fortie two, add one yeere more".

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…"47 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 dated 1560.51 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 philosophical disputation.52 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 company)
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 scholar.
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. p. 74.
13. Ibid. p. 175. 14. Ibid. p. 80.
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. p. 148.
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 pp. 72-3.
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. 35.
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. p. 117.
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" pp. 64-5.
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 pp. 63-4.
42. Dr Aston's benchmark paper is due for publication in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum in November 1991.
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 Introduction… 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. p. 81.
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. 223,240.
49. F.A. Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment p. 3. The Tempest ed. Frank Kermode pp. xxi-xxii.
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 claims.
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 Sackville.
53. Private Diary of Dr. John Dee ed. J.O. Halliwell (1842).