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February 14, 2007

a true story, a propos of nothing

It is 1617. Edward Coke, until recently the Lord Chief Justice of England and before that the implacable prosecutor of Guy Fawkes, Sir Walter Ralegh, and the Earl of Essex, has been fired by King James for defending the common law and sent away in disgrace. But Coke has a new reason for hope. His daughter Frances, age 15, has an opportunity to marry Sir John Villiers, brother of the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham is King James' "favourite"--his inseparable partner, chief adviser, and probably his platonic lover.

Unfortunately for Coke, his own wife is his most bitter enemy. She is Lady Elizabeth Hatton, a beautiful, enormously rich, young, and fashionable courtier. Coke and Lady Hatton live apart and are constantly suing one another. Lady Hatton now choses to block her daughter's proposed marriage to Sir John Villiers. In the middle of the night, she takes Frances away to a country house called Oatlands.

She tells the girl that a very high-born nobleman, Henry de Vere, the eighth Earl of Oxford, wants to marry her. This is a complete invention, but de Vere is safely in Venice on his Grand Tour and cannot be consulted. Poor Frances writes and signs an oath "gyv[ing] myselfe absolutely to Wyffe to Henry Vere Viscount Balbroke Erl of Oxenford to whom I plyghte my trothe and inviolate vows to keepe myselfe till Death us do part: and if I even brake the leaste of these I pray God Damne mee Bodye and Soule in Hell fire in the world to come: and in theis world I humbly beseech God the Erth may open and swallow mee up quicke to the Terror of all fayhte breakers that remayne Alive."

That is a pretty clear and forceful oath; Frances' marriage to Sir John Villiers now seems impossible. But Edward Coke arrives with a large band of armed men and a warrant to search Oatlands. He shouts that if he is forced to kill anyone to gain entrance, that will be justifiable homicide; but if any of his men are killed, it will be murder. With the help of a battering ram, he gains entrance to the house and removes Frances.

Lady Hatton goes immediately to Coke's nemesis, Sir Frances Bacon, who was responsible for her husband's disgrace. Bacon is sick and will not see her, but she finally bursts into his bedroom and demands a warrant to reclaim her daughter. Bacon sends her to the King's Privy Council, of which he is a member. The next morning, she addresses the Council in a "somewhat passionate and tragicall manner." She receives an order for the custody of Frances and heads to Coke's house to enforce it, accompanied by "three score men and pistolls."

Meanwhile, Bacon is trying to end Coke's career once and for all--and gain some credit for his work. He writes to Lord Buckingham, noting the many disadvantages of a match between Frances Coke and John Villiers. Coke's house is "disgraced," a "troubled house of man and wife, which in religion and christian discretion is disliked." Etc.

The Privy Council meets to consider charges against Coke for "force and riot" and other offenses. The tide is running against him; there is even a motion to discipline the member of the Council, Secretary Winwood, who had given Coke the original warrant to seize his daughter. Once everyone has expressed disdain and animus for Coke, Winwood pulls out of his pocket a letter from the King himself. James (and therefore, surely, Buckingham) strongly favor the match between Edward Coke's daughter and Sir John Villiers.

Now Bacon is in serious trouble; he has interfered with and insulted a union planned by his sovereign and his country's most powerful courtier. He receives a letter from Buckingham that must sink any remaining hopes. "In this business of my brother's that you overtrouble yourself with, I understand from London by some of my friends that you have carried yourself with much scorn and neglect toward both myself and friends; which if it prove true I blame not you but myself, who ever was your Lordship's assured friend, G. Buckingham." Not long after, a letter arrives from the King himself, whose style is far more direct and biting.

The wedding takes place at Hampton Court, although Lady Hatton is temporarily held under house arrest to prevent her from causing a scene. While Frances awaits her marriage, she writes an ingenuous and touching letter to her mother. The spelling, unfortunately, has been modernized, but one can follow the halting thoughts of the 15-year old as she sets them to paper.

She begins by trying to express loyalty. "Madam, I must now humbly desire your patience in giving me leave to declare myself to you, which is, that without your allowance and liking, all the world shall never make me entangle or tie myself." However, she is about to be "entangled" to John Villiers--completely against her mother's will. Her father is forcing her to set this unfortunate fact on paper. "But now, by my father's especial commandment, I obey him in presenting to you my humble duty in a tedious letter, which is to know your Ladyship's pleasure, not as a thing I desire." This sentence continues through several more wavering clauses, the main point of which is her hope for family harmony. "I resolve to be wholly ruled by my father and yourself"--not possible, under the circumstances--"knowing your judgements to be such that I may well rely upon, and hoping that the conscience and natural affection parents bear to children will let you do nothing but for my good." (We watch Frances' faith in her parents' judgment diminish to mere "hope," perhaps as she recalls their recent behavior.) "So I humbly take my leave, praying that all things may be to every one's contentment, Your Ladyship's most obedient and humble daughter for ever, Frances Coke."

(I take this story and all the quotes from Catherine Drinker Bowen, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, 1552-1634. This biography won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1958 and is a great read.)

February 14, 2007 10:27 AM | category: Shakespeare & his world | Comments


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