The Great Dictator

Faced with Sir Thomas More, a patchwork production by a rabble of commoners, which “like the toad … wears yet a precious jewel in his head”—a scene of Shakespeare’s—the Oxfordians have had to re-invent his lordship yet again.  None of the six hands in the manuscript is his.  Hand D, by consensus, is the Stratford fellow’s.  Is not. The spelling is nothing like De Vere’s.  The stylometry— Can’t hear you.  La-la-la.  But hey, Hand C, now:  that’s Anthony Munday’s.  Wasn’t he once Oxford’s secretary?  Out goes the high romantic image of the midnight study:  Rhys Ifans in fabulous shirtsleeves, alone with his ghosts.  In comes the Great Dictator and his secretary—no, his team of secretaries.  None of whom ever once blabbed.

“We now have to visualize Oxford at work, speaking lines aloud for a scribe to record—then, as he heard them recited back to him, pondering further changes, a method that guaranteed that the lines would sound as sweetly in a listener’s ear as in a reader’s mind.” 1

There’s a problem with that.  There are several; but consider two.

Oxford didn’t give dictation.  Only two of his surviving letters and memoranda (out of 77) are in a secretary’s hand.  The rest are in his own italic, in his own peculiar spelling, in his own amorphous style.  He writes currente calamo—with the pen running on—with scarcely a revision.  Aha! you will say:  "hee never blotted out line."  True, but in Oxford this is not facility, but sheer indifference.  This was not a man who concerned himself with the shape of sentences, the sound of words.  He dribbles.

And since Munday left the Earl’s household in 1581, Gidley has to assert that “there is nothing beyond orthodox imagination to contradict a date for the original More play of c.1581.” (42)  Analysis favors 1603.

Grant her 1581.  Here is Oxford, in July of that year, complaining that his knavish servants have been peaching on him, but he will retaliate:

“and thes fellowes, yf they be those, whiche I suppos, I do not dought but so to decyfer them to the world, as easly yowre lordship shall loke into ther lewdnes and vnfaythfulnes. Whiche tyll my liberte I mean to defer, as more mindfull of that importinge me most at this time, then yet sekinge to revenge my self of suche peruers and impodent [=impudent] dealinge of servants. whiche I know have not wanted incoragment and settinge on.”

And here’s Shakespeare, speaking out for scapegoats:

ymagin that you see the wretched straingers
their babyes at their backs, and their poor luggage
plodding tooth ports and costs for transportacion
and that you sytt as kings in your desires
aucthoryty quyte sylenct by yor braule
and you in ruff of yor opinions clothd
what had you got, I’le tell you, you had taught
how insolenc and strong hand should prevayle
how ordere should be quelld, and by this patterne
not on of you should lyve an aged man
for other ruffians as their fancies wrought
with sealf same hand sealf reasons and sealf right
woold shark on you…

It’s diamonds to dung.

So Munday is a wash; but a later household servant of the Earl’s would link him with the two of the very great poets of the age—as an object of satire.

John Donne and Ben Jonson both (in turn) owned the same copy of a book by Nicholas Hill, secretary to the Earl of Oxford. Both mocked him ruthlessly; and through him (it would seem) his lordly master.

The book and their use of it cast light on a number of issues that the Oxford cult elides: the true relationship of lord and secretary; the construction of image in the aristocracy; the natural history of reputation: and, not least, Jonson’s true opinion of wilful obscurity in writing.

Nicholas Hill Catalogus

The secretary was Nicholas Hill (1570-1610?), a learned and eccentric man whose scholarship lay somewhere in the borderlands between natural philosophy and magic. John Manningham of the Middle Temple noted in his diary (25 October 1602): “I heard that Sir Richard Basset is much seduced, indeed gulled, by one Nic. Hill, a great profest philosopher, and nowe abuseth this yong knight by imagined Alchymie.” Anthony Wood, in his Athenae Oxonienses (1691-2), wrote that Hill was secretary to the ”prodigal Earl of Oxford,” and afterward was “taken into the retinue” of Henry, Earl of Northumberland, the ”Wizard Earl,” whose interests mingled science, magic, alchemy, and the occult. Hill, wrote Wood, “had a peculiar and affected way … in his writings [and] … entertain’d fantastical notions in philosophy.”

Better with Bacon

The post-Romantic image of the writer as the Genius in the Garret, suffering nobly for his Art (or better still, the Lord in the Library), so mawkishly beloved of Oxfordians, would have been alien to early moderns.

Recent scholarship has studied how a play (like Sir Thomas More) might be the collaborative work (and rework) of an acting company. So too, a letter or device or sonnet, fictitiously the work of a nobleman, might be the product of his secretariat.

There has emerged a new model of “the collaborative household in which a cadre of secretaries, clients, friends, and scribes did not simply advise, research or copy out the work of leading politicians, courtiers and administrators, but actually wrote it ... The author, as head of the household, took responsibility for the work of his household that bore his name but which emerged from a collaborative process.” 1

Perhaps the best-studied collaborators in this mode have been the Earl of Essex and his servant-mentor, Francis Bacon. The scholar served as the noble’s quasi-secretary of state. Brian Vickers writes that “Essex seems to have called on his [Francis Bacon’s] help when he needed some particularly delicate piece of writing, such as an eloquent or tactful composition involving the queen.” 2 The not-yet statesman served “as go-between and ghost-writer for Essex.” (Vickers, 258) Working with other highly-trained scholars in the household secretariat, he produced letters, political tracts, and even court entertainments, all intended to advance the Earl’s political standing, his image as a man of gravitas and learning: all presented as the Earl’s own work.

Alan Stewart, working from original documents, has been reconstructing this process:

“Essex does not sit down and pen a tract himself. Instead, he seeks out the expertise of two men: Thomas Phelippes, a noted cryptographer ... and Francis Bacon. Phelippes will provide ‘precedents’; Bacon will supply 'counsel' in the form of written ‘notes’; Essex will then 'reform and enlarge' his own draft incorporating anything useful from Bacon’s. The work will clearly stand as Essex’s: the earl here commissions the piece, suggests the mechanism for its composition, perhaps–although this is not clear—polishes the final product himself, presents it to the queen himself, and takes credit for it.” 3

Not only political tracts were constructed in this way, but even literary works.

Essex’s “darling piece Of Love and Self-Love” was performed at Whitehall by his household in November 1595. This “protodramatic device” (Vickers, 252) starred Essex himself as Erophilus (turned out exquisitely in carnation and ivory) “acting out a wish-fulfilment reconciliation with Elizabeth.” (Vickers, 253). An eyewitness, Rowland Whyte, wrote that "My Lord of Essex's device is much commended in these late triumphs." (Vickers, 269) The part, the player, and the Earl himself become one single figure, who is seen to be the author of himself. But he is not. We have Bacon's holograph fair copy of the piece, and his working drafts, scattered over several archives. "Bacon has actually added marginal notes to Essex pointing out how he should understand and apply the allegory to his own ends.” 4

If Essex, why not Oxford? Of course, politically and intellectually, De Vere was a puffball to Devereaux. His follies and conspiracies were nothing to the younger earl’s; his favor fleeting; his obsessions trivial or monetary. Essex—impetuous as he was—was a considerable power until his fall, and a bona fide Cambridge MA; Oxford, a dilettante whose formal education, as far as is recorded, had ended at thirteen. And though Munday, Lyly, Hill were all very bright, not one of them was Francis Bacon.

No device or interlude ascribed to the Earl survives. But one can imagine how the Bedingfield letter might have been patched together. It’s a thousand words; it would be interesting to run the stylometrics against Oxford’s other prose. Banal and ponderous as it is, the thing attempts rhetoric. A secretary may well have advised De Vere what book it would be politic to praise, to give him that desirable air of gravitas. A secretary may have penned the letter itself, with more or less input from the Earl; or polished and revised the Earl’s original, suggesting figures and supplying Latin: but as the master of these underlings, Oxford would enjoy the credit.


1 Margaret Healy, Thomas F. Healy, eds. Renaissance Transformations: The Making of English Writing (1500-1650). (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 8.

2 Brian Vickers, “The Authenticity of Bacon's Earliest Writings,” Studies in Philology, Vol. 94, No. 2 (Spring, 1997), 257.

3 Alan Stewart, “Re-thinking Authorship Through Collaboration,” in Renaissance Transformations, 84-5.

4 Brian Vickers, ed. Francis Bacon : The Major Works, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 537.


The book is Philosophia Epicurea, Democritiana, Theophrastica proposita simpliciter, non edocta (1601). This may seem esoteric, even thrilling, to the uninitiated—Roger Stritmatter opines 2 that “the book would have been widely regarded as heretical, given its materialistic and atomistic philosophy”—but the Donne scholar Piers Brown dismisses ”Hill’s book, with its simplified and fashionable atomism rendered in sententiae” as “exactly the sort of inappropriate learning that Donne satirizes.” 3

Jonson didn’t think much of it. On the verso of the title page he wrote a mocking inscription, a line from Martial (the Doug Piranha of Roman satirists:4“non lectore tuis opus est, sed Apolline libris” (“your books do not need a reader, but [rather] Apollo”). Or to put it bluntly: ``God knows what you thought you meant.”

Garry Wills translates Martial’s epigram more freely:5

You make your audience grope and tarry—
Your reader’s not a dictionary
But commentators I make merry
Who read me with no commentary.

Hill is the “English man who had maintained Democritus opinion of atomes” who appears in Jonson’s conversations with Drummond: ”if [readers] objected obscuritie against his book, he bid [his young son] answer, that his Father, above all names in the world, hated most the name of Lucifer, and all open writters were Luciferi.”

What Jonson detested in Hill was his pseudo-profundity, his vacuous pomposity, his bombast, his—well, his Coppinosity. He clearly saw Oxford’s secretary’s work “as willfully, preeningly bad, making a show of how overloaded it is.” 6

(Jonson’s bluntness has been inconvenient to the Oxford cult. By calling him “sly” or “witty” or ”ambiguous,” they can turn his words inside out, make Jonson their mouthpiece and their puppet. They turn Humpty Dumpty on his head: when he uses a word, it means just what they choose it to mean.)

Later, Jonson would return to Hill, more savagely: but first he passed the book to Donne, who made excellent sport of it.

The book, says Brown, “is ornately bound in tooled, gilt leather with the badge of Christ’s College, Cambridge in the middle of the front cover, and contains interleaved blank pages for note-taking, which nevertheless remained unused. … The contrast between the ornamented exterior and the neglected interior is suggestive of the disjunction between the appearance and the reality of learning.” 7

Donne himself wrote nothing in the book—Jonson’s motto is crossed out, and a slip with Donne’s signature is pasted over his name—but he clearly saw what it was: all blather and binding, and no sense.

Sometime between 1601 and 1610, he “wrote a short Latin jeu d’esprit, the Catalogus librorum aulicorum incomparabilium et non vendibilium, now known as The Courtier’s Library.”8 It’s a metaphysical joke, a flight of wit by a secretary well above his courtly master’s head.

As a courtier would trust a bodyservant with the secrets of his balding or his corset or his missing teeth, so only to his confidential clerk would he reveal his ignorance of Plato or of Livy. The servant would be paid to fill him in discreetly: wig his ignorance. But here “the implied secretarial author of the Catalogus abuses this trust by slyly purveying nonsensical books to his ignorant patron.” 9

Donne himself was a secretary. And here he satirizes the relationship: the perfect servant proposes an outrageous device to his dim patron, eager to shine. Think Mr. Blackadder and the Prince Regent.

Picture Master Donne in black, ironically discreet and deferential: “And because the natural occupations of court, in which you spend your time, do not allow you the leisure for literature, because, after sleep, which by custom must not be shaken off until after ten in the morning; after you have dressed in the clothes appropriate to the day, place, and passions; after having composed your face in the mirror, and worked out whom to receive with a jeer or with a frown; after banquets and amusements—how much time is left over in your life for reading and the improvement of your mind?” 10

Not much.

But Donne’s courtier wants to “avoid both the shame of ignorance and the bother of reading [legendi fastidium].” He could acquire a few names to drop (“As Pliny says…”)—but what if someone called his bluff?

It’s much more likely that De Vere and his secretaries resembled Blackadder
and The Prince Regent than the aristocratic genius and his amanuensis,
fondly imagined by Oxfordians.

Don’t worry, says Donne. You can dazzle them. Here’s a list of books which no one else has read, because they don’t exist.

As Brown comments, “Disembodied books offer the fantasy of knowledge without the labor of humanist learning.” 11 Appearances, at court, are everything.

Oxfordians, as always, get it topsy turvy. They see the secretary as a mere recording device. “The voices! Munday, I hear voices. Take a play.” Munday, falling to his knees, as before the burning bush: “I am not worthy, Lord.” 

But the courtly secretary’s job—as Donne well knew—was to create his lordly master’s image as a learned man.   Nobles kept whole secretariats of clever fellows busy.  A courtier would have a crew to read for him, to annotate his books; to analyze, epitomize, and brief him on the texts he ought to know. Piers Brown writes of the “secretarial labor that undergirded the courtly display of learning.” 12 It was the servant’s work of reading and interpretation, his tutoring and briefing of his master-pupil—all his paddling underneath—that let the lordly swan appear serenely humanistic.

There were noblemen who wrote; but a “sonnet of his own pure brain” was something to remark on.  If a courtier required words—witty talk, a letter, a device or interlude—he might command them of his secretary, as he would a doublet of a new invention from his tailor—and take credit for both. His servants existed to glorify him. Their feathers were his own, by right of birth.

“A true Renaissance secretary … wrote in whatever persona was required.”—Stephen Orgel.

And no wonder.  The intensive training in rhetoric—the art of eloquence—that grammar-school boys underwent produced the age’s secretaries, lawyers, divines—and as a fortunate by-product, its playwrights.  Among the figures they were drilled in was prosopopeia:  the art of speaking in another’s voice.  A secretary would ventriloquize his master or his mistress, write her letters as herself:  a great trust.

And Shakespeare—who missed nothing—noted this impersonation and imagined what mischief might arise.  “I can write very like my lady your niece: on a forgotten matter we can hardly make distinction of our hands.”  Not only hands:  “her very phrases!”  Of course, what Maria writes Malvolio is transcendently ridiculous, but note:  she seals it with my lady’s impress, her Lucrece.  Outside of comedy, that would be treacherous indeed.

Donne savagely detested that appropriation, that theft of voice. In his Satyre 2 he writes:

hee is worst, who (beggarly) doth chaw,
Others wits fruits, and in his ravenous maw
Rankly digested, those things out-spue,
As his owne things; and they are his owne, ’tis true,
For if one eate my meate, though it be known
The meate was mine, th’excrement is his owne.

So was De Vere another of these flimsy courtiers? Was Edward George? Certainly he left no reputation for genius—or for doubleness, or mystery, or martyrdom. He was not the “Hidden Earl.” A handful of stock praises persist, handed on from writer to writer like Leland’s “Avondunum.” Other than that, there remain a scattering of dodgy poems and the report of some fugitive comedies.

What was remembered was the Prodigal Earl, the overblown aristocrat who irresistibly invited puncturing.

In his Brief Lives, Aubrey praises Hill at length: “of the most learned of his Time: a great Mathematician and Philosopher, and a Poet and Traveller.” 13 Genius, here, is seen to flow from servant to master. Of Oxford himself, he says only that “his Travells … were so splendid and sumptuous, that he lived at Florence in more grandeur than the Duke of Tuscany. This Earle spent fourty thousand pounds per annum in seaven yeares Travell.”

And of course, he tells the Joke: “This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”

And it’s this relationship—the Holofernes and the foolish fop—that Donne is mocking. First of all in his imaginary catalog of books comes:

1. Nicolas Hill, On Distinguishing the Sex and Hermaphroditism of Atoms; The same, On their Anatomy, and How to Aid in their Births when they are buried.

Recall that it was this man’s job to make Oxford look learned. He’s a Laputan. He would have dressed his lordship in the Emperor’s New Clothes—and neither would have had the wit to know the difference.

There’s perhaps another whiff of Oxford later in the list:

23. Cardano, On the nothingness of a fart.

Which leads us back to Ben Jonson. He wrote of Hill once more, in “On the Famous Voyage” (1612), his mock-epic of a journey down the Fleet Ditch, then an open sewer. (Now a buried one.)

Here, sev’ral Ghosts did flit
About the shore, of Farts, but late departed,
White, Black, Blue, Green, and in more Forms out-started,
Than all those Atomi Ridiculous,
Whereof old Democrite, and Hill Nicholas,
One said, the other swore, the World consists.
These be the cause of those thick frequent Mists
Arising in that place, through which, who goes,
Must try th’ unused Valor of a Nose.

The fart, I see, was not forgotten. It lingered, ghostly, still, amid the other farts, like shades on Acheron. A guess of mine: but possibly the link was there in Jonson’s mind, between the atomistic secretary and the odor of the “late departed” Earl. The story is apocryphal, of course, older than dirt: it turns up in the One Thousand and One Nights. But it attached itself to Oxford, as the sort of preening ass to whom it should have happened. By Aubrey’s time, it was all that anyone remembered of the man (except for his spending).14 Could this be its first appearance?


  1. Fran Gidley, “Shakespeare in Composition,” The Oxfordian, Volume VI 2003, 52.

  2. http://shake-speares-bible.com/2013/09/28/ben-jonsons-last-laugh-part-1/

  3. Brown, Piers. “Hac Ex Consilio Meo Via Progredieris”: Courtly Reading and Secretarial Mediation inDonne’s the Courtier’s Library (Renaissance Quarterly, Fall 2008).

  4. “He used sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire.”

  5. Wills, Garry. Martial’s Epigrams: A Selection (New York : Viking, 2008), 10.21.

  6. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/steven-pinker-the-sense-ofstyle-review.html

  7. Brown. You should find this article and read it. It’s brilliant.

  8. ibid.

  9. ibid.

  10. Brown’s translation.

  11. ibid.

  12. ibid.

  13. This is most striking in the the Oliver Lawson Dick edition of the Lives, where he devotes two-thirds of his entry on De Vere to Hill.

  14. And had a servant, Mr. Nicholas Hill, a learned man, “But no writer (that I ever heard of ).” And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

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