The Jesuit Under the Floorboards

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05 January 2022
· I investigate unexpected comments about myself in a book about my executed cousin ·

Once in a while a book surprises me. Summaries and reviews tell me what to expect, then between the covers I discover something that’s better than what I paid for. I found such a surprise hiding beneath the pages of The Marvellous Chance: Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk, and the Ridolphi Plot, 1570-1572.

Quick reminders: Thomas Howard was the son of my aunt Frances (née de Vere) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The Ridolphi (or Ridolfi) Plot was the first of several pro-Catholic conspiracies surrounding or involving Mary Stuart, ex-Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s compulsory houseguest after her flight into England in 1568.

The Marvellous Chance was published in 1968. Its author, Francis Oborn Edwards, SJ (1922–2006) was a Catholic priest, an historian, antiquary, and Archivist of the British Province of the Society of Jesus– the Jesuits.

The Society of Jesus was founded by Ignatius de Loyola in 1540Surprisingly or not, the current pope, Francis, is the first Jesuit pontiff.. Jesuits in my day were the intelligentsia of the Romish priesthood: educators, missionaries, the apostles of Counter-Reformation, the bêtes noires of insecure Elizabethan Protestantism. They kept my father-in-law (Elizabeth’s right hand, William Cecil) up nights. In 1585 all and every Jesuits, seminary priests, and other priests whatsoever were exiled by law. Tom’s head was long off by then, and Mary’s wasn’t far from joining it.

Edwards’s book promised a different look at the circumstances that killed my cousin. A Jesuit priest would have a certain take on events, even after four centuries. Safe to say The Marvellous Chance would not be history as written by the victors. Also safe to say it would not speak well of Cecil, which was reason enough to pick it up.

Marvellous Chance coverNot speak well puts it mildly. Edwards inverts the plot’s standard narrative. His plotter was not Roberto Ridolfi but (wait for it) Cecil himself, whose purpose was to get his inconvenient political opponent, the realm’s only duke and the queen’s near relation, out of the way. Other inversions: Mary Stuart wasn’t after Elizabeth’s English throne, she only wanted her Scottish one back. Spanish Phil had no wish to invade (this was many years before the Armada). The kicker? Ridolfi was working for Cecil the whole time. A secret papal envoy during the Northern Rebellion in 1569, Ridolfi had been caught and turned by Walsingham. He was now in Cecil’s pocket, his agent provocateur. Tom was cooked like a Christmas goose.

Contradicting history’s victors is never easy, and Edwards’s intrinsic bias, while understandable, is also unignorable. In any case my goose of a cousin made things all too easy for his enemies, and I have enough on my plate trying to correct my own historiography. It’s not the contents of Edwards’s main text that has me scribbling, but what came after it. Underneath it. The surprise.

Set the book on a desk. Appendix Five, The Earl of Oxford’s Escape Plot, lies quietly at the bottom. Unobtrusive, nearly hidden, like the tangents I sometimes add to my posts. It first establishes my relationship with my cousin by quotingDugdale William Dugdale’s The baronage of England, from 1675. Dugdale maintained, a century ex post facto, that after Cecil (Lord Burghley by this point) refused to spare Tom’s life in 1572, I took self-destroying revenge on him through my new wife Anne, his daughter. It’s nonsense, but Edwards wanted to connect me emotionally to Tom and there aren’t many quotes to choose from.

Of course I pled desperately to keep Tom’s neck from the block, and Burghley’s playing PilatePilatePontius Pilate washes his hands, from Joanna I of Castile’s book of hours, circa 1500 [British Library Add MS 35313, f.27r] didn’t fool me for a minute. But my personal issues with Anne never had anything to do with Tom, and I’ve already discussed at length the reasons for my financial collapse, none of which were kamikaze payback stunt.

Edwards atoned for the sin of quoting Dugdale by calling out the untruth that I ever plotted to jailbreak my cousin. The surprise, however, came when he commented

Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl, moreover, was a man of high intelligence—he has seriously been proposed as ‘Shakespeare’—

and then defended me against my old bug(ger)bears the libels of Charles Arundel and Henry Howard, Tom’s problematic (I’m being nice) younger brother. The priest had my attention.

(Readability edits– original text here.)

It was Edward de Vere’s misfortune or distinction to live with Sir William without becoming subservient or even submissive to him. […] Most of the time their relationship could be explained in terms of an older man with a near monopoly of money, influence, and power, doing his best to thwart every effort towards independence in his high-spirited junior. In much, de Vere resembled Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex; able, dashing, impetuous, extravagant, in full sympathy with the literary flowering of his age, and in Oxford’s case a distinguished contributor. Small wonder he failed to appreciate the other side of Burghley, his earthy outlook and grasping acquisitiveness for all its mask of external piety and endless expressions of selfless service to the state. Indeed, it was probably by way of reaction that the Earl tried to dispose of his own lands, knowing that if he kept them his children would be the victims of the wardship system as he himself had been. Perhaps the Earl was one of those who ‘were giving up their lands rather than face intolerable feudal charges’.

Unfortunately many of the documents in Oxford’s case seem to have been destroyed. One could doubtfully speak of loss. Among the hereditary goods which fell to the supervision of the Master of the Court of Wards were family records. Oxford’s children formally became wards after the Earl’s death in 1604. Sir Robert Cecil, his father’s successor in most respects including that of Master, thus had every opportunity to weed out ‘undesirable’ material from the de Vere papers. It is difficult to believe so careful a man would have neglected such an opportunity; also to explain otherwise the absence of many documents one would expect to find. No wonder, since most of the evidence came through the hands of Sir William and Sir Robert, that an older generation of historians, for whom Burghley could do no wrong, should write Oxford’s story tersely enough, and only from his enemies’ point of view. B M Ward’s biography, carefully read, does much to correct older prejudices, but it is likely the seventeenth Earl is a historical enigma still awaiting time’s solution.

If Francis Edwards, SJ, wasn’t a card-carrying Oxfordian, I’d eat my ugly French hat.

Like one of Robert Cecil’s pursuivants hunting for Henry Garnet after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot (though with more benign intentions), I wanted to track my Jesuit down. Confirm what I had read between the lines in Appendix Five. Find him on the record, confessing his belief in my identity as Shake-Speare.

• First stop, his bibliography:

  • · The Dangerous Queen (about Mary Stuart) (1964)
  • · The Marvellous Chance: Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk, and the Ridolphi Plot, 1570-1572 (1968)
  • · Guy Fawkes: The Real Story Of The Gunpowder Plot? (1969)
  • · The Gunpowder Plot: The Narrative of Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway (1973)
  • · Robert Persons: The Biography of an Elizabethan Jesuit, 1546-1610 (1995)
  • · Jesuits in England (2001)
  • · Plots and Plotters in the Reign of Elizabeth I (2002)
  • · The Succession, Bye, and Main Plots of 1601-1603 (2005)

Only Fawkes and Jesuits, in addition to the book I already had, were borrowable at IA, and the younger hounds were chasing other prey. I found a musty copy of The Dangerous Queen, but found myself absent from its pages. Further surprises unlikely.

• Second stop, the May 2007 issue of Recusant History (now British Catholic History). From the eulogy given at Edwards’s funeral mass in 2006, by his successor as Archivist, Thomas M McCoog, SJ:

Before Father Linehan introduced me to Francis, he advised me to avoid certain subjects: the identity of the author of the Shakespearean plays, the Cecils, William and Robert, and most important, the Gunpowder Plot!

McCoog added that Francis was known at the Public Record Office as Gunpowder Edwards, and that he appeared frequently on television and radio, anywhere with anyone to debate the Cecils, the plots, and the authorship of Shakespeare.

He was mine, I knew it. Could I smoke him out on YouTube?

• Third stop: hello, Father.

The video plays from the 6:06 mark, my march plays at the end (hello, Father), and Roger Stritmatter looks young enough to play Super Mario on his Game Boy. Edwards’s comments don’t reveal his Authorship status, but at least he’s there. This video was a wrapup segment for a 1992 Oxford/Stratford debate called Uncovering Shakespeare, An Update. The three-hour debate is not online, but its transcript is. (Also here.)

• Fourth stop: on the list of Editorial Board members of The Elizabethan Review, from its first issue in 1993 to its last in 1999,

Francis Edwards, SJ, FSA, F Hist Soc

His contributions:

  • · Fall 1993, Vol 1, No 2: book review, Invisible Power: The Elizabethan Secret Services, 1570–1603 (by Alan Haynes)
  • · Autumn 1994, Vol 2, No 2: article, William Shakespeare: Why Was His True Identity Concealed?
  • · Autumn 1995, Vol 3, No 2: article, The Divisions Among the English Catholics: 1580–1610
  • · Spring 1997, Vol 5, No 1: letter to the editor
  • · Autumn 1997, Vol 5, No 2: letter to the editor
  • · Spring 1998, Vol 6, No 1: letter to the editor

Bingo. The article is generally insightful with a few Edwardsian inaccuracies, but the details aren’t the point. My hat and my digestive tract were safe.

A contrarian over Shakespeare Authorship. Over the motives and methods of the two Cecils. (He really disliked the Cecils, who were of course the victors I mentioned earlier.) Over Mary, Queen of Scots. Over pretty much anything to do with English Catholicism during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.

Gunpowder Edwards must have been quite the dinner guest.


Though I was successful in my quest for Edwards’s Oxfordian bona fides, a question tugged at the hem of my satisfaction. Hadn’t I just found what wasn’t lost? Why didn’t the priest’s name ring a bell at the outset, why didn’t I know he was a partisan before I chanced to open The Marvellous Chance and discovered myself in Appendix Five?

I thought about it for a minute, then answered:

Timing, mainly. Lack of opportunity for our paths to cross. While my interest in my own cause goes back as far as anyone’s, prior to coming online in 2015 I had little no ability to interact with living Oxfordians. Edwards died before the rise of social media, and his public internet presence, outside of old reviews of his books, a few citations, and what I’ve described here, is effectively nil. The Elizabethan Review archive was posted only in 2020. Except for my tangential appearance in Appendix Five, Edwards’s published work deals with non-Shakespearean subjects. It was simply my curiosity to see what he had to say about Tom that finally put the Ridolfi book into my hands. Surprise.

Until I hunted down my hidden Jesuit I didn’t know he was right beneath my feet all along.

Priest hole at Coughton Ct, WarwickshireLooking down into the double-blind priest hole
at Coughton Court, Warwickshire

[National Trust Images, Andreas von Einsiedel]


• Tom Howard’s place in the line of Howard dukes of Norfolk, and what’s so ironic about his Catholic connections. Howards Beginning, posted 10 March 2018.

• Not only did I meet Mary Stuart, I was one of the judges at the 1586 trial that condemned her. Trying to Remember Trying Mary is Trying, posted 8 February 2018.

• Tom’s father the Earl of Surrey was one of the first two poets to use the English sonnet form commonly misnamed Shakespearean. Sonnets Day, posted 20 May 2019.


If the name sounds familar, it was this same William Dugdale who sketched the original Stratford church monument of William (or perhaps John) Shakspere in 1634.

  • The Elizabethan Review []
  • · published semiannually from 1993 to 1999
  • · edited by Gary B Goldstein
  • · archived online by the SOF