Spycraft Without Peer: Who Was Really the Earl of Oxford?

Adult life has made it hard to stay in touch with old friends, but every time I do get in touch with them, the conversation is all the sweeter for being so rare. I had the good fortune of talking to my friend Neha Natalya Pandey recently. In spite of the pandemic, she, and all her family, have been keeping well. In fact, her father, the learned Dr Acharya Somuchidonanda Pandey had turned the pandemic to his advantage, and spent the past year carrying out researches in the Saint Basil Archives. Of course, he does that even without a pandemic around him. But his discoveries in the past year have been so astonishing, revelatory, and pathbreaking in our conception of history, that they make up for all the horror of the year gone by.

I could not possibly do justice to Dr Pandey’s discoveries by attempting to paraphrase or describe them myself. As always, I shall share the venerable professor’s research in his own words below, while marveling at the grace he has shown by choosing my humble blog as the platform for his research before sharing it through more formal and academic channels. What follows is the precis Dr Pandey has written of his past year’s work.

The task of the historical entrepreneur is a fearsome and awe-inspiring one. He must confront the millennia of history that has come before him, and with courage and boldness, speculate on the area of his inquiries. The historical project is frequently built upon chance and tiny odds. It is my privilege to have lived a life in which these odds have fallen in my favour, and in my mission of bringing the truth to light. No more so than in the past year, when my routine activity in the Saint Basil Archives of Rostov-upon-Don revealed documents that had been hidden for almost five centuries – first, for reasons of statecraft and intrigue; and then, out of shameful neglect. The Basil-Don papers not only bring about a new understanding of the growth of European nationalism, but overturn a narrative that has besmirched the reputation of a great man. I am a man of history, but equally of justice – and in the few paragraphs that follow, my aim is not so much to discuss the minutiae of statecraft, as it is to give a maligned man his rightful due.

But first, I must explain the nature of these papers, and how they came to rest in Russia. The documents I have found are memoranda from the Elizabethan Age of England, passed between queen and cabinet members. They are a window into the diplomacy and espionage practiced by England, and are astonishingly detailed in not only their discussion of strategic aims, but in the minute details of the English Crown’s agents who were pursuing these aims. They were carefully archived under seal in London for a little over a century; but in the eighteenth century, were moved to the Prussian court, in a quid pro quo for the dowry of Caroline of Ansbach. For two centuries, they remained in Berlin, unopened and unrecognised. In the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, the liberating Red Army moved the archives from Berlin to the motherland, where Stalin planned for my mentor, Professor Varely Smirzkoff to study them. Unfortunately, Professor Smirzkoff’s untimely death meant that the documents did not see the light of day for another sixty five years. Only last year, when I first opened this trove, did the intrigues of four hundred years past come to light.

The papers reveal that England, though weak in military power, was accomplished in diplomacy and spycraft. This spycraft extends beyond that already acknowledged by history in the activities of Sir Francis Walsingham. There was another ring of spies, working not at home but abroad – one whose existence was unknown until now. Sir Francis Bacon, thought to be merely the legal counsel to Queen Elizabeth, was in fact the leader of this intelligence network, one which sent diplomats and spies across Europe, disguised as poets or members of acting troupes, to keep track of military musters, courtroom gossip, and weapons manufacturing.

Bacon’s circle of spies included the older Edward de Vere. de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, had spent the 1570s traveling through France and Italy, and sending intelligence back to Bacon. One of the most important members of the English espionage effort, his contributions were so important that they could never be made public – and in fact, some years later, Bacon encouraged the impression of de Vere having fallen from the queen’s favour as an elaborate ruse to protect him from the vengeful French and Spanish. Despite this ruse, his status remained high in the courts of Europe, who would demand his personal presence in diplomatic negotiations. It was a disaster, therefore, when de Vere suddenly fell ill and died right before a crucial diplomatic conference in 1584.

Bacon urgently needed a replacement for the Earl of Oxford, and one of his agents, a young man named Christopher Marlowe, provided a solution. Bacon did not need a new diplomat – he could get a new man to play the old diplomat. Marlowe introduced Bacon to an up and coming actor, a man of immense talents, but not yet famous enough to be recognised – William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare entered Bacon’s ring of spies, and as his first assignment, impersonated the Earl of Oxford at the diplomatic conference. Shakespeare’s immense acting talent meant that the courts of three foreign powers were utterly taken in, and that the impersonation was a flawless success. With this success done, Bacon would not let Shakespeare go. For the next twenty years, Shakespeare led a triple life – living as the Earl of Oxford in the rich parts of London, as himself in the world of theatre, and as a spy on the Continent whenever Bacon required it of him. It was not until 1604 that Bacon was able to untangle his web of intrigue and lay the impersonated Earl of Oxford to rest. In the intervening time, Shakespeare had made a name for himself as a playwright and actor, but also a name for the Earl of Oxford as a poet. He acted both on stage and off it, disguising himself as a nobleman, a sailor, or a merchant on espionage visits to France, and Italy. Bacon’s other agents had their hands full, destroying all portraits and sketches of Shakespeare that were being created by his devoted stage fans, so that nobody might notice the strange resemblance between the accomplished actor and the Earl of Oxford.

Bacon did not only cover up a death, but in an odd balance, he created a fake one. In 1593, needing Christopher Marlowe to be in the field ever more, he spread the news of Marlowe’s death, and had a poor street urchin buried under Marlowe’s name. Marlowe then spend the next eighteen years spying for Bacon across Europe, and eventually died in 1620, having spent a full and happy life. In the intervening years, he sent intelligence reports to Bacon, with personal letters to his friend Shakesepare, who was happy to take Marlowe’s descriptions of Italian towns, and incorporate them into his own plays. Indeed, the great man was not above wryly commenting on his own situation in his plays, which frequently deal with impersonation, mistaken identity, and ruminations on the nature of self and identity.

While Bacon continued his activities well into the seventeenth century, Shakespeare was exhausted by the triple life he was leading, and eventually retired to his home town, bearing the – alas, very secret – thanks of his queen and country.

Unfortunately, while the passage of the centuries and the final destruction of the Stuart conspiracies should have allowed for Shakespeare’s remarkable talents and accomplishments to have taken their place in the spotlight of history, the transfer of the Baconian archives to Hanover meant that it was not to be. Even more tragically, while independent researchers in the nineteenth century came close to discovering the truth of the connection between Shakespeare and de Vere, in the absence of the archival material, they got the connection the wrong way around – and claimed that de Vere had been Shakespeare, rather than the true facts of the matter – that Shakespeare had been de Vere for more than twenty years.

This reverse identification, although perversely testifying to Shakespeare’s brilliance as an actor, did the great man an injustice and attributed his writerly brilliance not to the actor, but to a character he played.

It is this injustice that I set out to correct in this monograph, and which the future publication of the Saint Basil papers will finally lay to rest. I am delighted that my years of research have allowed me to overturn a longstanding historical myth, and bring a purer truth to light.

(The author of the above monograph is the Hon. Director of the Smirzkoff Centre for Historical Speculation. He lives with his wife, Dr. (Mrs.) Valentina Dimitrieva Pandey, and up to twenty two of their children, in suburban St Petersburg.)

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