Rory Clements
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John Shakespeare's People

My cast of characters

Courageous, cruel, conspiratorial, creative…the Elizabethan era teemed with colourful characters. Here are a few of the star players, with a fact or two you may not know about them. Click on their names to see them.

Queen Elizabeth I Sir Francis Walsingham
Sir Robert Cecil Lord Burghley
The Earl of Essex William Shakespeare
Sir Walter Ralegh Father Robert Southwell, SJ
Lettice Knollys Lord Howard of Effingham
Penelope Rich Mary, Queen of Scots
Sir Francis Drake William the Silent
Elizabeth Sydenham Sir John Hawkins
Earl of Leicester Richard Topcliffe
Philip II  
 
Queen Elizabeth 1st

Unknown artist/ National Portrait Gallery,
London. Circa 1585-90

Queen Elizabeth I

1533-1603

Queen of England from 1558 and the last
of the Tudor dynasty. She returned the
country to the Protestant faith and defied
the might of Spain.

No one knows how or when she first heard that her father, Henry VIII, had ordered the death of her mother, Anne Boleyn – but she certainly did not seem to hold it against him. When she was 24, one observer said:
She prides herself on her father and glories in him.

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Sir Robert Cecil

Sir Robert Cecil

Sir Robert Cecil

1563-1612

The slight, hunchbacked second son of Lord Burghley, he inherited his father’s statesmanship and devious intelligence. First he made himself invaluable to Elizabeth, then to James I. The loathing he felt for the dashing Essex was mutual and he did much to ensure the latter was beheaded for his attempted coup in 1601. Cecil was a cold, unsympathetic character who gained the nickname Robertus Diabolus. He has been much criticised as a seeker of wealth and power but, in his defence, he did ensure a bloodless succession and he did, eventually, secure peace with Spain.

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The Earl of Essex

The Earl of Essex

The Earl of Essex

1567-1601

The most unlikely of Elizabeth’s favourites (she was thirty-four years his senior), Robert Devereux – pronounced Dever-ucks – was  a moody man who was given to great enthusiasms and deep depressions. A modern doctor might wonder whether he had bipolar disorder.  Following his abortive coup in 1601, he was beheaded at the Tower. Always careful of his appearance, he wore a black satin doublet and scarlet waistcoat – and refused a blindfold. The nervous executioner had to use three blows to sever the head.

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The Earl of Essex

Sir Walter Ralegh

Sir Walter Ralegh

1552-1618

Like his great rival Essex, Ralegh faced the headsman’s axe and underwent his execution in style. He shook hands with the noblemen watching the scene and spoke at length, insisting on his integrity. Despite allegations of atheism made against him, he said he died as a member of the Church of England, hoping to have his sins washed away by the blood of Christ. Taking off his doublet, he asked to see the axe, then felt the blade, smiled and said, ‘This is a sharp medicine, but it is a cure for all diseases.’ At the moment of execution, the headsman hesitated. ‘What do you fear?’ Ralegh demanded. ‘Strike, man, strike!’ And he did.

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Lettice Knollys

Lettice Knollys

Lettice Knollys

1543-1634

Beautiful and regal, she was originally a good friend of her cousin Elizabeth, but they fell out irrevocably after she secretly married the Queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Lettice – probably pronounced Letitia – was never far removed from gossip and scandal, but she had a remarkable instinct for survival, outliving her three husbands, her son the Earl of Essex, and her daughters Penelope (died 1607) and Dorothy (died 1619). Almost to the day she died at 91, she remained fit and active.

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Penelope Rich

Penolope Rich

Penelope Rich

1563-1607

The most celebrated young woman of the late Elizabethan period, she was elder sister to the Earl of Essex. Despite enduring a forced marriage to Lord Rich when she was 18, she was loved by the heroic poet Sir Philip Sidney and by the feted warrior Lord Mountjoy, whom she eventually wed. But she lived dangerously and narrowly avoided losing her head for her role in her brother’s coup attempt. Restored to glory by James I in 1603, she fell from favour after Mountjoy’s death and endured a ferocious battle over his will. In court she was called ‘an harlot, concubine, adulteress and whore’. She died lonely and ignored.

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Sir Francis Drake

Unknown artist/ National Portrait Gallery,
London. Circa 1580

Sir Francis Drake

1540-1596

He is famous for his decisive action against the Spanish armada in 1588 and for circumnavigating the globe in the Golden Hind (1577-80). During the voyage, he took aboard three black people, probably Spanish slaves. One of them was called Maria and she became pregnant. All three were deposited on an uninhabited island near the Celebes. Critics said he abandoned them to save food – but others point to his friendship with the freed slave Diego and say such harsh treatment would have been out of character, suggesting the island was fertile and the three volunteered to stay.

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Unknown artist/woman believed to be Elizabeth Sydenham

Elizabeth Sydenham

1562-1598

Heiress to a rich west country family, she became Sir Francis Drake’s second wife in 1585 (he was 45, she was 23). By then, Drake was fabulously wealthy. In modern parlance his bride might have been seen as a trophy wife; he certainly did not curb his seafaring activities to be with her or give her children. On his death in 1596, she married Drake’s old antagonist Sir William Courtenay of Powderham, Devon – a  Catholic and a womaniser given to “drinking, whoring, etc”.

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Earl of Leicester

Unknown artist/ National Portrait Gallery,
London. Circa 1575

Earl of Leicester

1533-1588

The great love of Elizabeth’s life, he rose to be a Privy Councillor and Master of the Horse. But he was a controversial figure. Accusations against him included:
1) murdering his first wife Amy Robsart to leave him free to marry the Queen,which she refused to do;
2) poisoning Lord Sheffield before secretly marrying his widow Douglass Sheffield;
3) poisoning Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex, so that he could marry (bigamously, as he was still married to Douglass) the Queen’s beautiful cousin Lettice Knollys. Some wonder whether his own death was due to poisoning, though malaria is equally likely.

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Philip II

Unknown artist/ National Portrait Gallery, London. Circa 1580

Philip II

1527-1598

The king of Spain and Portugal had four wives, including Mary Tudor, with whom he lived in England for fourteen months. On her death, he tried to woo Elizabeth but was rejected.

As a devout Catholic, he battled to stem the Protestant tide. When he heard news from France of the 1572 St Bartholomew’s massacre of protestant Huguenots (up to 70,000 men, women and children were slaughtered) he danced for joy in his bedroom.

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Sir Francis Walsingham

Attributed to John De Critz the Elder/ National Portrait Gallery, London. Circa 1585

Sir Francis Walsingham

1530-1590

As Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary and founder of the secret service, Walsingham spent years plotting the death of Mary Queen of Scots, whom he described as a “bosom serpent”. When they came face to face at her trial for conspiracy, she accused him: “I fear that all of this is the work of Monsieur de Walsingham for my destruction.” He replied: “I protest that my soul is free from all malice…I have attempted no one’s death…I am a man of conscience and a faithful servant to my mistress."

 

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Lord Burghley

By or after Arnold van Brounckhorst/ National Portrait Gallery. 1560s

Lord Burghley

1520-1598

Born plain William Cecil, he rose to greatness under Elizabeth, serving her for forty years as Secretary of State, then Lord Treasurer. He took great pains over the education of his sons Thomas and Robert and the other wards under his care. He would constantly throw general knowledge questions at them and  expected them to read the New Testament four times a year and the Old Testament three times – for he did so himself, despite the burdens of high office.

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William Shakespeare

Attributed to John Taylor/ National Portrait Gallery. Circa 1610

William Shakespeare

1564-1616

Among his best friends were his neighbours Hamnet and Judith Sadler, who lived in High Street, Stratford. They were not only godparents to the Shakespeare twins in 1585, but the babies were named Hamnet and Judith after them. The boy Hamnet died at the age of eleven, but Will’s friendship with the Sadlers continued all his life. In his will he left baker Hamnet – by then a widower – 26 shillings and 8 pence (approaching £1,000 in today’s terms) to buy a mourning ring.

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Father Robert Southwell, SJ

By Matthaus Greuter or Paul Maupin/ National Portrait Gallery. Published 1608

Father Robert Southwell, SJ

1561-1595

Martyred for his faith, this remarkable Jesuit priest was as well known for his poetry as for his religion. Was he, also, a friend of William Shakespeare? He dedicated one group of poems “To my worthy good cousin, Master W.S.”, signing it, “Your loving cousin, R.S.” It is almost certain that Southwell spent time as a chaplain within Southampton House, the London mansion of the Earl of Southampton – who was at that time, in the early 1590s, patron to William Shakespeare. The word “cousin” did not necessarily refer to a blood relative, but could mean a close friend.

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Lord Howard of Effingham

Unknown artist/ National Portrait Gallery, London. 1602

Lord Howard of Effingham

1536-1624

A close friend and adviser to Elizabeth, Charles Howard rose to be Lord Admiral of the fleet defending England against the Armada.  Happily admitting his inexperience in naval warfare, he surrounded himself with the best fighters of the age – Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher.

After the English victory, the ordinary sailors were put ashore and left to starve, with no help from their Queen. But Howard – later Earl of Nottingham – sold his own silver plate to pay for clothing, food and ale for the men.

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Mary, Queen of Scots

Unknown artist/ National Portrait Gallery, London. Date unknown

Mary, Queen of Scots

1542-1587

The daughter of James V of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise, her claim to the throne of England stemmed from her grandmother Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII. The world has always been divided on whether she was a saint or a sinner. Did she plot the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley? Did she commit adultery with Darnley’s supposed assassin the Earl of Bothwell? Did she conspire to have her cousin Queen Elizabeth murdered? One certain sadness is that she did not see her son James (later James I of England) again after April 21, 1567, when the boy was 10 months old.

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William the Silent

By Charles Turner (1814), after Johan Wierix/ National Portrait Gallery, London.

William the Silent

1533-1584

William I, Prince of Orange, rose up against the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands and was murdered for his pains – the first head of state to be assassinated by a pistol. He is thought to have been known as “the silent” because of his reluctance to speak out publicly on controversial issues. The family of his French assassin Balthasar Gerard (who was tortured and executed horribly) was rewarded by Philip II of Spain with great wealth, a peerage and vast estates in France.

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Sir John Hawkins

Artist unknown/ National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Circa 1581

Sir John Hawkins

1532-1595

A merchant and sea captain, he was famous for modernising Elizabeth’s navy with the design of the so-called “race-built” galleon – a lower, sleeker, more nimble ship than the lumbering troop carriers used by Spain. These proved decisive against the Armada and Hawkins was knighted. Yet he had a less heroic side – as the first English slave trader. In 1562, he carried 300 slaves from the Guinea coast of Africa across the Atlantic, selling them to the Spanish for a cargo of treasure, sugar and spices.

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Richard Topcliffe

1531-1604

Born in Somerby, Lincolnshire, he was a Member of Parliament, priest-hunter and torturer who was said to claim intimacy with Elizabeth herself. The Catholic priest Thomas Pormort testified that Topcliffe said he was so familiar with the Queen that he often fondled her breasts and legs and “that he felt her belly and said unto Her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any womankind”. He also claimed that he was so familiar with her that “when he pleases to speak with her, he may take her away from any company”. Pormort was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Topcliffe’s nephew Edmund Topcliffe was so disgusted at the family link that he changed his name.

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See more from the Elizabethan Lexicon >