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Issue 5 (2013) - Open-themed

The Legacy of the Will of Henry VIII in John Webster’s Sir Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody

Steven Veerapen

[1] A collaborative play by Webster, Dekker, Heywood, Smith, and Chettle — likely pieced together from the lost play Lady Jane and a putative sequel, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1601-2, printed in 1607, STC 6537) — reflects on the period of political instability following the deaths, in relatively rapid succession, of Henry VIII and Edward VI (Hoy 1980: 311).[1] This was an instability which was in no small part exacerbated by the divergence between Henry’s will and Edward’s wishes with regard to the bequest of the kingdom. Similarly, Heywood’s own 1604-5 play, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (Part I) (printed 1605, STC 13328), made use of roughly contemporaneous material whilst chronicling the reign of the infamous Mary I and her fraught relationship with the popular, younger Elizabeth. Although critics have been hesitant to identify the hand of Heywood in Sir Thomas Wyatt, both plays also share discrete passages of stark similarity, notably in the accession speeches of Mary (Hoy 1980: 333-5). Further, a more general dedication to theatrical pageantry is evident in both plays’ depictions of royal ceremonial. This is, of course, unsurprising, given that both Sir Thomas Wyatt and If You Know Not Me dramatize the downfall of one sovereign and the accession of another, each complicated by the lack of a direct heir. As a result, both also share thematic concerns regarding the ways in which a monarch’s testamentary will, and its various legal ramifications, operated in a society in which debates around succession were reignited by Elizabeth’s advanced age and the accession of her Scottish-born cousin, James VI and I. The earlier Tudor succession crises, therefore, provided the playwrights with a ready means of engaging with the looming, and then newfound, arrival of a foreign monarch allegedly barred by a testamentary will but chosen by providence, apparent from historical circumstance and tacitly accepted by Queen and council.

[2] The notion of the will was, to a monarch, a means not only of distributing alms, goods and chattels, but — uniquely in the case of Henry VIII — of personally stipulating successors to whom the kingdom was to be bequeathed. The revolutionary nature of this step must not be underestimated. Commenting on Henry’s various Acts of Succession — unprecedented in the annals of English monarchical history — Alice Hunt has observed that the willing of the throne to nominated heirs rather than natural successors ‘brought the legitimacy of English kings and queens under authority of parliament’ (Hunt 2009: 560). More pointedly for the period, the combined authority of monarch and Privy Council proved instrumental in settling and securing thorny succession questions. Certainly, this was the case throughout Henry’s chequered history of nominating and barring his offspring from the succession, which met with little — if any — parliamentary demur. His first Act of Succession (1533) removed his eldest daughter from the succession; his second Act of 1536 bastardised Elizabeth; and his third and final Act of 1543 served to settle the throne on Prince Edward and his putative heirs, with any future children with Queen Katherine preceding the lines of Mary and Elizabeth. Henry’s will (1546) thus acted as a confirmation of his 1543 Act of Succession, which reinstated his daughters as rightful heirs whilst retaining their illegitimate status. Given the lack of fecundity amongst Henry’s children, as well as the fact that his colourful marital history ensured that two of those children remained tainted by bastardy, it is unsurprising that late Elizabethan and early Jacobean playwrights engaged with questions regarding the will of the council in matters of royal succession. Given Henry’s actions as well as historical circumstance, it was inevitable that the efficacy of royal wills would also come under the theatrical lens as, typically, the issues, arguments and debates of the day found their way on to the popular stage. Indeed, with the decline of Elizabeth and the accession of James I, the ‘fundamental incongruities’ exposed by the late monarch’s meddling with the accepted norms of English succession were once more brought to the fore (Ives 2009: 144).

[3] According to the will of Henry VIII the succession was to rest – should Edward die without issue – on the lines of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth respectively. Understandably, of course, Henry had hopes of Edward’s provision of an heir, and so direct bequests to his daughters focused on financial and material provisions aimed at their securing husbands. Edward’s wishes — bolstered by his Devise for the Succession (1553) — broke entirely with his father’s will and last succession Act by calling for the exclusion of his sisters in favour of his Protestant cousins, the Grey sisters (of whom Jane would meet her death under Mary I, whilst Mary and Katherine would continue to be a source of anxiety and annoyance for the childless Elizabeth). It will be noted also that in both Henry’s will and Edward’s Devise, however, no provision was made for the descendants of Henry’s sister, Margaret, Queen of Scotland (and great-grandmother of the future James VI and I).

[4] Assessing the question of the Elizabethan succession as it was debated during the 1560s, Mortimer Levine notes that Henry definitively ‘set aside’ the Stuarts in his will. It was a step which led to a politically and religiously charged war of words waged in manuscript and print between those who supported his actions and those who questioned his legal right to dismiss the superior claim of the Stuarts in favour of the Suffolks (Levine 1966: 158). Henry’s reasons for doing so continue to provide fodder for interesting — if ultimately fruitless — historical speculation. Chief amongst the plausible motivations were Henry’s belief in the future marriage of Mary Stuart and Edward (a match which would have united the two British crowns under English domination); his fondness for the Suffolks; a national contempt for the Scots; and the common law rule against alien inheritance, derived from a 1351 statute against foreign-born individuals inheriting English property (Levine 1966: 159).

[5] At any rate, within a generation of Henry’s death, the pens of pro-Stuart writers scrabbled furiously in an attempt to prove the alleged illegality of the will. Arguments ranged from the King having ‘no right’ to exclude the succession of his older sister, Margaret, to the complicated interpretation of the common law rule of inheritance as it applied to the crown (Smith 1962: 21). So particular were the arguments that doubts were even raised as to the whether or not the King had used his own hand or a dry stamp in signing the will. The latter, it was argued, would have compromised Henry’s legal right to fix the succession via ‘a will signed in his most gracious hand’ (Smith 1962: 22). Undoubtedly, the succession provisions of the will were of great import in the early Elizabethan period, during which Mary Stuart’s advocates found it imperative to challenge their validity. However, as Anne McLaren recognises, the accession of James I to the throne ‘reintroduced a question…that came to dominate political discourse in the seventeenth century: whether Stewart kings were or could be godly kings of England’ (McLaren 2002: 290). Given that the 1603 accession of James (the only likely candidate for the throne, who was supported by the council, and in whom ‘blood, Protestantism and virility combined’) was a direct refutation of Henry’s will, it is small wonder that dramatists found in the legacy of the Tudor king’s will fertile ground in which to cultivate their exploration of the role of a deceased monarch’s will, its legal interpretations, and the dangerous outcome of a thorny and contested succession (McLaren 2002: 290).

[6] Sir Thomas Wyatt opens with self-interested noblemen and parents of Jane Grey and her husband, Suffolk and Northumberland, discoursing on the imminent death of Edward VI, with attention focused on the problem of confirming the king’s will. The exchange provides an early indication that the absolute power of the king will cease with his death. It is into this discussion that Wyatt intrudes, voracious in his allegiance to Henry VIII. Condemning the self-interested lack of constancy inherent in Northumberland and Suffolk’s dismissal of Henry’s wishes in favour of Edward’s ‘will’ (historically, his Devise), he declares

It boots me not to stay,
When in this land rebellion bears such sway.
God’s will, a court! ‘tis changed
Since noble Henry’s days.
You have set your hands unto a will:
A will you well may call it:
So wills Northumberland, so wills great Suffolk,
Against God’s will, to wrong those princely maids.
(Webster and Dekker 1953 [1607]: I.i.23-30)

The play on the notion of ‘will’ as it pertains to a document stipulating the wishes of the deceased (collapsed with God’s will when the deceased was King Henry) and the ‘will’ as it pertains to the wishes and desires (and subsequent manipulations) of the living monarch and his council is obvious. Castigating Suffolk and Northumberland for setting their hands unto ‘a will’ (Edward’s Devise), which is as much a product of their own willing desire to elevate their children to power, Wyatt’s contemptuous remark, ‘a will you well may call it’ is two-fold. In addition to drawing attention to the partisan willingness of the corrupt councillors, it also deftly brings into relief the Godly will of the deceased Henry and the so-called will of Edward, driven by Northumberland and Suffolk. It is this contrast between the testamentary will of the dead and the living will of those in power (with the added complication of the latter entailing the state) which drives the action of the play. Indeed, it will be noted that central to Wyatt’s rhetoric is the exposure of Edward’s Devise as a fraudulent, rebellious and invalid attempt by corrupt, living council members to seize power through spurious legal means.

[7] Certainly, the personalities involved in the framing of the will remain a source of scholarly interest, with the historical and legal detective work of J. L. McIntosh revealing the covert practices employed by the Edwardian council (McIntosh 2008: 39). Though it should have been a sacrosanct document, McIntosh notes the attempts by the regency council to undo the provisions of Henry’s will in the interests of assuming full regal authority. It was, in effect, ‘legal fraud’ perpetuated in order to remove the threat of Henry’s daughters: particularly Mary, who was viewed by the international Catholic community as the true heir, in addition to being part of a powerful female network, a focus of factional discontent with the regency regime, and a patron of considerable East Anglian influence (from which her later army against Jane Grey was to be formed). Although historian Eric Ives has convincingly argued that Edward (in slavishly following the precedent of his father in nominating heirs to the throne) is likely to have been acting under his own authority and intent, the fact remains the Devise was never sanctioned by parliament and thus lacked the authority and legality which was attached to Henry’s will (Ives 2009: 142). Indeed, as Levine notes, ‘when Edward ordered his judges and law officers to draw up a will along the lines of the Devise, they protested that it was “directly against the Act of Succession (1543), which was an Act of Parliament which would not be taken away by no such device”’ (Levine 1966: 150). Consequently, doubts regarding the document’s legitimacy and authorship were not only familiar to sixteenth and seventeenth-century commentators, but have echoed through the centuries. Furthermore, Webster and Dekker’s Wyatt lays claim to the support of divine authority in his argument, as he collapses the will of God (‘Against God’s will, to wrong those princely maids’) with the will of Henry VIII, God’s former deputy on earth. Crucially, it must be noted that Wyatt does not directly attack the Devise of Edward (a ‘will’, as he terms it, ‘extorted from a child’) but the actions of those officials whom he contends are responsible for its creation. It is a critical point for one, such as Wyatt, whose allegiance is predicated on the right of kings (Webster and Dekker 1953: I.vi.75-6).

[8] Adding further legal weight to his position, Wyatt later reprimands his peers in the council:

You were sworn before to a man’s will,
And not a will alone,
But strengthened by an act of Parliament
(Webster and Dekker 1953 [1607]: I.vi. 82-4)

By drawing on Henry VIII’s Third Succession Act (1543), later bolstered by 1547’s Treason Act (which made it a capital offence to interrupt Henry’s established line of succession), Wyatt therefore calls into question the legality of Edward’s Devise, and in so doing successfully argues for the instatement of Mary as Queen.

[9] It must be remembered, however, that the historical Edward’s Devise For the Succession followed Henry’s own precedent in ‘nominating and excluding heirs of his own volition, independently of traditional rules of descent’, a fact with which Webster and Dekker would have been undoubtedly acquainted (Ives 2009: 142-4). One must here draw attention to the legal validity of Wyatt’s reasoning. Despite his earlier argument centring on the divine authority which ostensibly reinforces Henry’s will, he is nevertheless willing to cultivate support via insistence on the very earthly conventions of oaths and legal statutes. Indeed, he expressly notes the implied parliamentary approval of Henry’s will in contradistinction to Edward’s, which was never sanctioned by parliament (Hunt 2009: 560). Consequently, Webster and Dekker depict a Wyatt whose overt belief in the tenets of divine right is belied by both his legal caviling over the Devise of Edward VI and the legal foundation upon which his insistence on the propriety of Henry VIII’s will is built. Ironically, the legal arguments put forward by Wyatt at this early stage in the play foreshadow what is to become the catalyst for his own downfall.

[10] Later destabilizing Wyatt’s position is his subsequent attitude towards the established Queen Mary. A formerly ardent supporter, Wyatt falls from grace through his refusal to accept the Queen’s desire for a foreign marriage to Philip of Spain. It is a refusal which he once again couches in a morally and legally upright commitment to the will of Henry VIII:

Remember, O remember, I beseech you,
King Henries last will, and his act at Court,
I mean that royal Court of Parliament,
That does prohibit Spaniards from the Land,
That Will and Act, to which you are all sworne,
And do not damn your souls with perjurie.
(Webster and Dekker, 1953 [1607]: III.i.140-45)

Once again, Wyatt’s adherence to Henry’s documentary will contrasts him with his by then unerringly compliant peers, who voice their support of the match immediately following Mary’s denunciation of Wyatt’s ‘liberal and offensive tongue’. It is this fall from favour which leads to Wyatt’s subsequent uprising as he attempts to dispossess Mary of the throne. However, the reasoning behind Wyatt’s refusal to assent to the Spanish match — and his consequent rebellion — needs further examination. Certainly, his claim that the ‘Will and Act’ to which the council were sworn (that is, the 1546 will of Henry VIII and the 1543 Act of Succession) ‘does prohibit Spaniards from the land’ is untenable. Whilst Henry’s will specified that Mary obtain the consent of the majority of the surviving councillors and executors named therein prior to any marriage (something, as Levine notes, she had no intention of doing), there was most certainly no prohibition of Spaniards (Levine 1966: 153]. The only possible interpretation by which Wyatt could have reached such a conclusion lies in the common law rule against alien inheritance of English land: a rule which would have barred Philip from becoming King of England and enjoying a life tenancy of Mary’s lands (Levine 1966: 108). Such a willful and seemingly obscure interpretation of the law (and Henry’s intentions) is less startling than it might seem. On the contrary, the idea was a popular one, advanced by anti-Catholic lawyers and religionists in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, when anxiety about the possibility of Mary Stuart’s accession to the English throne was at its zenith. The idea, of course, had enormous implications for the time of the play’s first performance, when Mary’s son (James VI) was widely expected to accede to the throne following the death of Elizabeth. By then, naturally, the idea had assumed a quite different complexion, and it is no surprise that the crux of Wyatt’s tragic descent lies not only in his adherence to the will of Henry VIII but more crucially in his legal misinterpretation of Henry’s will in support of his own xenophobic bias against Philip. In essence, it was the dramaturgical choice of the playwrights to make Wyatt a doubly tragic figure by making his legal misjudgement a product of anti-Spanish sentiment (certainly popular at the time of the play’s composition) whilst lending contemporary significance to the futility of his quibbling. To Webster and Dekker, the ultimate tragedy of Wyatt’s rebellion and subsequent execution is, therefore, based on a piece of legal chicanery which, with the inevitable prospect of a foreign monarch succeeding the present queen, looked increasingly irrational and outmoded.

[11] What the play makes clear is that the royal will, when it stipulated a deceased monarch’s intentions for future sovereignty, occupied a peculiar and uneasy position between supreme, enduring authority and individual (and thus potentially flawed or self-interested) interpretation. Hence, one can turn to the popularity of contemporary beliefs which held that the alterations in succession introduced by Henry VIII’s will (including his lack of provision for the hereditary claims of the Stuarts, and the arguments thus born concerning the rights of foreign princes to inherit not just land, but the crown of England) were human and invalid, because his body politic remained a separate entity untouched by either his personal or parliamentary attempts to interrupt hereditary succession. This was certainly the argument adopted by pro-Stuart commentators, who espoused the notion that the crown, ‘being a corporation’ was an ordained birthright and therefore something which could not be made or unmade by men (Walker 1998: 215). Such men, of course, included Henry VIII and all who cited his will as a valid bar against foreigners (whether Spaniard or Scot) inheriting the crown. It is no coincidence that this was an argument adopted by supporters of the Stuarts during the Elizabethan regime, in particular the celebrated Catholic lawyer Edmund Plowden, whose Treatise on the Succession presented the argument in 1566. A key component of Plowden’s argument was a belief that the body natural of the King may die, yet the body politic endured. Plowden pointedly wrote that, were Henry VIII’s will to be followed, the kingdom would have been ‘gayned by estopell [that is, an impediment or obstruction] and not by truth’, a view which gained wide currency in Catholic circles.

[12] Nor was Plowden unique in his public consideration of the issues raised by Henry’s unprecedented attempts to maintain his personal will after death. Levine has convincingly demonstrated the variety of means by which the opinions of subjects on the Tudor succession were disseminated both privately and publicly (Levine 1966: 19). Indeed, the Elizabethan period was plagued by treatises which were circulated under the guise of private letters, in addition to such tracts as John Hales’ A Declaration of the Succession on the Crown Imperiall of England (1563), which favoured the claim of the Grey sisters, and the plethora of reactionary texts it spawned. Of course, whilst Levine focuses his discussion on the 1560s, he nevertheless makes plain that by the close of the Elizabethan period, the ‘path was comparatively clear for James VI of Scotland to become James I of England’ (Levine 1966: 206). As such, the wealth of arguments which had had stemmed from the will of Henry VIII and its dismissal of the Stuarts broke down, as did the stipulations of the will itself due to the failure of both the Tudor and Suffolk lines in the production of heirs. The notion of the will itself, of course, is synonymous with mortality, and it is therefore no great deductive leap to recognise that a document which is predicated upon the physical death of the body had lesser sway in a culture which promulgated the belief that the state of sovereignty embodied by the ruler did not die, but rather that the mantle of monarchy passed to a worthy and natural successor. Given the impending death of Elizabeth, and the fact that her probable heir James VI did not pose quite the same threat in terms of religious controversy, the dramatic presentation of Wyatt and his flawed and willfully misinterpreted dedication to the will of Henry VIII provides his character with his particular tragedy.

[13] It may be further argued that Webster and Dekker present a Wyatt who, though successful in adopting and maintaining the will of one monarch, is unable to relinquish it (or, rather, his creative interpretation of it) and act with necessary political contingency according to the living will of the incumbent ruler. His intractability and intransigent nature naturally raises further questions about the role of the council in the play. Indeed, as it is Wyatt’s tragic misunderstanding of the will of a dead monarch at the expense of a living one which brings about his downfall, the play invites a consideration of the dangerous role of the rebel in resisting the combined will of queen and council. Whilst those who bend to the will of the living monarch survive, those who oppose it perish, with even the unfortunate Jane Grey (presented, with questionable authenticity, as largely lacking a strong will of her own) being executed following Mary’s accession. In short, the play highlights the danger of the rebellious subject’s legal wrangling around the posthumous will of a monarch, by exposing the danger of Wyatt’s misguided dedication to Henry VIII’s documentary wishes. The subject loyal to the will of the deceased monarch, it is seen, is cast down upon the accession of the new embodiment of the body politic.

[14] The play also represents the attitudes of the general populace to the royal wills, as the eager Northumberland recognises the importance of securing the assent of the people, calling, ‘In the market Proclaime Queene Jane. / The streets are full, the towne is populous’ (Webster and Dekker 1953 [1607]: II.ii.15-6). The response of the public is captured in an exchange between a clown and a maid:

Maid: God save the queen, what queen? There lies the sense:
When we have none, it can be no offence.

Clown: Well, cry God save queen Jane, as you go, and
God send you a good market.
Maid: Is the right queen call’d Jane? Alack, for woe;
At the first she was not christened so.
(Webster and Dekker, 1953 [1607]: II.i.21-30)

It becomes apparent that the people have a clear knowledge of the sudden complexities of royal succession, which they express with a degree of irreverent liberty and skepticism evidently not apparent to those in power; and yet the attempted subversion of Henry’s will is of particular consequence, as the failure of Northumberland to rouse an army from the people undermines his own grab for power. Consequently, the subversion of Henry’s will at this point in the play is a matter recognized and, although out of plebian control, undermined by the unwillingness and passivity of the common subjects in supporting the hapless Queen Jane. Similarly, the satirical confusion present in the Maid’s speech serves to highlight not only the relationship between commoners and state, but once more draws attention to the general confusion engendered by the changes in succession laws instigated by Henry and Edward’s wills (Ives 2009: 166). Nevertheless, the role of the unsupported and rebellious councillor is rendered largely ineffectual in a play which promotes an overarching political ideology that demotes the will of the deceased monarch in favour of a divinely ordained and legally sanctioned successor. It is here worth noting that Plowden’s concept of the nature of the crown as a corporation consisted of two elements. In addition to the divinity of a succession that was untouched by temporal concerns, the king and his subjects also made a ‘perfect corporation’ (Levine 1966: 113). This was a restatement of the mediaeval idea of the king as the head of a ‘corporation aggregate of many’, with emphasis on the monarch as ‘head’ and the subjects, parliament and council as ‘members’. That Northumberland rebels against the ‘head’ in a bid for power (as Wyatt had earlier punned, placing Northumberland’s will in opposition to ‘the will of God’) is of particular importance. In dramaturgical terms, the Duke’s motives may be placed in contradistinction to Wyatt’s; the latter’s actions stemmed from a tragic misunderstanding of Henry’s will, whilst the former openly sought power through the overturning of that will as manifested in his threat to the united, corporate crown.

[15] Webster and Dekker interrogate the relationship between the monarch, council members (both loyal and rebellious) and the more plebian subjects, and this is an area probed further in Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, Part 1 (alternatively titled The Troubles of Queen Elizabeth), which reached audiences in 1604-5, following the accession of James I. In one particularly telling scene, a trio of soldiers debate the propriety of Queen Mary’s actions in imprisoning her obstinately willful and religiously fervent sister:

2: How shall we spend the time till morning.
3: Mate we’ll drink and talk of our friends.
2: I but my friend, do not talk of state matters.
1: Not I, I’ll not meddle with the state.
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: VI, 470-474)[2]

Naturally, however, the group cannot refrain from discoursing on the politically sensitive events that unfold around them, as they continue:

2: But beware of talking of the Princess,
Let’s meddle with our kindred there, we may be bold.
1: Well sirs I have two sisters, and the one loves the other,
And would not send her to prison for a million, is there any harm
In this? I’ll keep myself within compass I warrant you,
For I do not talk of the Queen, I talk of my sisters,
Ile keep my self within my compass, I warrant you.
3: I but Sir, that word sister goes hardly down.
1: Why Sir, I hope a man may be bold with his own,
I learn’d that of the Queene…
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: VI. 482-491)

Addressing this exchange, Kamps recognizes the soldier’s shift from the public to the domestic sphere as a means of criticizing the Queen and safely meddling with the state — a substitution considered ineffective by the laconic opinion of the third soldier, who holds that the word sister ‘goes hardly downe’ (Kamps 1996: 79). Kamps argues that the scene therefore provides a literary meditation on the way in which history might be approached (with the soldiers providing a metanarrative chorus on the ways in which drama can treat history safely). It is a convincing argument, and one which has consequences for both the play and its audiences. However, it can equally be argued that, like Webster and Dekker’s use of the citizenry in Sir Thomas Wyatt, Heywood’s play provides a dramatic contrast to the ways in which the premier noblemen of the play have little or no effective means of publicly voicing their own reservations about state matters. As such, the scene featuring the soldiers can be viewed alongside another in which Lord Shandoyse castigates the vacillating Sussex on his seeming lack of loyalty to the crown:

Shandoyse:  My Lord, my Lord, let not the love we bear the Princess, incur the Queen’s displeasure, tis no dallying with matters of Estate, who dares gainsay the Queen?

Suffolk: Marry a God not I, no, no, not I;
Yet who shall hinder these my eyes to sorrow,
For her sorrow: By Gods marry deer,
That the Queene could not, though herself were here:

My eyes would hardly prove me a true Subject:
But tis the Queen’s pleasure, and we must obey.
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: VII.546-552; 555-6)

The ways in which the private soldier airs his views stands in direct contrast to that of Sussex. The implication, therefore, is that the nobleman is well aware of the political expediency of dissembling his true will and feelings, as a great many were forced to do in the turbulent years of the reformation, counter-reformation and Elizabethan settlement. The matter is complicated, however, by Sussex’s assertion that his eyes will betray the true bent of his will, despite his demonstrable and overt actions affirming his loyalty to Queen Mary. In this way, the play suggests a greater degree of license on the part of the lower ranks in voicing their own will and opinion. It is an idea certainly reminiscent of Sir Thomas Wyatt, perhaps not coincidentally, as that play also features the hand of Thomas Heywood (at unidentified points). Indeed, both plays share a thematic concern with the divergence of public opinion from that of the monarch and council, and both present a breadth of opinion between council members, and so underline the potential dangers that can result from such divisions. Whilst the substitution method favoured by the first soldier may be crude, he goes unpunished for his discourse. Whilst Suffolk’s rank and public office ensure that he remains bound to the will of his sovereign, the soldier steadfastly maintains that ‘I’ll stand to it; for saying a truth’s a truth, I’ll prove it; / … I know what I know, / You know what you know, he knows what he knows, / Marry we know not what every man knows’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: VI. 502-506). Heywood recognizes and explores the double bind in which noblemen could be caught when personal feelings diverged from the need to conform to the will of the monarch.

[16] It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the voices of the aristocracy and royal officials in If You Know Not Me are united in their submission to the will of Queen Mary. Indeed, the play, like Sir Thomas Wyatt, explores the issue of the corporate crown (and, in Plowden’s explicatory terms, the notion of a ‘divers degree and sort’ of subjects comprising the members of the body politic) and its multitude of integral power structures in a variety of ways. The ultimate intent, in dramatic purposes, is to illustrate the multitude of personal ‘wills’ at work under the guise of submission to the crown. Chiefly — as may be expected in a post-Marian drama — the play is critical of Mary’s advisers, particularly those ‘Prelates’ with whom the ‘Queen is much besotted’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XX. 1382). Of particular note is the corrupt Cardinal [sic] of Winchester, who encourages the Queen to ‘note the commons’ insolence’ in asking her to keep her promise of religious toleration to the Protestant commoners who supported her against the usurping Queen Jane. It is a promise she peremptorily revokes, in language which, once more, mirrors Mary’s volte face in Sir Thomas Wyatt. Winchester later cements his role as chief agitator by encouraging Mary’s suspicions of her sister, as he introduces the leading question: ‘is’t not probable / That she in Wyatt’s expedition, / And other insurrection lately quelled / Was a confederate’? (Heywood 1935 [1605]: II.  97-101).

[17] Similarly, Mary’s Constable of the Tower is consistently depicted as responsible for Elizabeth’s mistreatment, his role as gaoler being one which he performs with barbarous alacrity whilst ostensibly carrying out ‘The Queen’s commands’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: VII. 626). His personal will and obvious enjoyment of the commission, however, are not concealed as, despite a prescient warning from Gage that ‘The Queene I know when she shall hear of this, / Will greatly discommend your cruelty,  … And you may live to serve her [Elizabeth] ere you die’, the Constable insists ‘O you preach well to deaf men, no, not I  …  She is my prisoner, and if I durst, / But that my warrant is not yet so strict, / I’d lay her in a dungeon’. He further, entirely un-presciently, voices the belief that the Queen ‘is likely to bear, / Of her own body a more royal heir (Heywood 1935 [1605]: VIII. 704-718; VII, 630-1). In the Constable of the Tower, consequently, is symbolized the malevolent will opposing and containing the willfully Protestant Elizabeth, in a figure who is wallowing in cruel excess and ‘deaf’ to the appeals of the council. The play’s treatment of Mary’s fragmented power and will undoubtedly allows Heywood to disperse the blame for the failures (and cruelty) of the Marian regime without Mary’s legitimacy to rule being questioned. Additionally, however, it provides a further example of the conception of the corporate body politic — here depicted as an entity corrupted by figures such as the Constable, operating under their own savage wills and potentially, as Gage suggests, in ways abhorrent to the Queen.

[18] The idea of a monarch served by unreliable and willful retainers is no longer an unfamiliar notion. Alice Hunt has identified the contemporary beliefs about the importance of a monarch’s ability to heed the advice of reliable and worthy men of government, while maintaining absolute authority — a bifocality which ‘simultaneously emphasized a state’s unequivocal need for good councillors and a good governor’ (Hunt 2009: 570). However, it arguably also invites audiences to recognize the dangers inherent in abusing the will of the sovereign by advancing personal ambitions and exercising personal will under the cloak of royal authority (further echoing the activities of Northumberland and members of the regency council in Sir Thomas Wyatt). Indeed, this view of the corporate nature of the crown and its underlying plethora of individual wills (only united by the pacific disposition of Elizabeth towards Mary’s former council) becomes a key theme of the play, as, with the death of Winchester and his successor, Cardinal Poole, Sussex remarks that ‘the state begins to alter’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XX. 1404).

[19] In historical terms, the image of a monarch and state which constituted a corporation in the sense of the ‘corporate crown’, comprising a body politic of royal head and non-royal members (as suggested by Plowden in his formulation of arguments against Henry VIII’s will), was very much in keeping with the issues raised by the unprecedented rise of three Queens Regnant to the throne. McIntosh has persuasively argued, Mary and Elizabeth were particularly suited to sovereignty not only because they were named so in Henry’s will, but because as landed women with individual households, they had forged strong corporate identities and won faithful followers who were loyal to the will of their mistress in matters of religion and political ideology (McIntosh 2008: 11). Accordingly, the play therefore draws contemporary parallels with the recent succession of Heywood’s sovereign, James I, lately arrived with his Scottish retinue and keen to portray a sense of unity both in terms of his two kingdoms and his hereditary right — as supported by the English council and recounted in the king’s first address to parliament (McLaren 2002: 290). However, it may be argued that the corrupt and self-interested activities of Mary’s officials and councillors, whilst detracting from the personal failures of the monarch, nevertheless illustrate an unwise council’s potential of poisoning the body politic as a whole.

[20] The notion of the crown as a corporate entity is notable also for the repercussions it has for the presentation of Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain, the ostensible cause of Wyatt’s rebellion in Sir Thomas Wyatt. In fact, both plays, despite having a common author in Heywood, diverge on their treatment of the unpopular king.  The Philip of If You Know Not Me acts as a mediator between rival sisters, whose only goal is ‘A peace that pleaseth heaven and earth and all’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XVIII. 1307). To Kamps, such a remarkably positive presentation is one of historical pragmatism, as, at the time of the play’s publication, peace with Spain (which had begun in 1604 following a period of economic hardship) provided a trade boom which could not be undercut by the resurrection of old, if long-held, antipathies (Kamps 1996: 73-4). It is a point well made, and certainly supported by the existence of what Margot Heinemann recognizes as one of the ‘guiding principles’ of Jacobean censorship, which forbade ‘unfavourable presentation of friendly foreign powers or their sovereigns’ (Heinemann 1980: 39). Whilst Kamps is undoubtedly correct in his assertion, it can still be argued that his focus on Jacobean trade relations and the importance of maintaining peace with Spain neglects the overall effect of Philip’s positive portrayal: that is, a further division of Mary’s royal will and prerogative between husband and wife. Whilst Philip might be portrayed positively as a matter of Stuart expediency, the yoking of a foreign king to Mary nevertheless provided a focal counterpoint to the virginal Elizabeth (who left England to a Stuart successor without accepting a foreigner as a husband). Thus in keeping with the attitudes of her prelates and judicial officials, who provide Elizabeth with antagonists in the play, Philip therefore proves to be a benefactor. More than this, however, he is a benefactor who shares Mary’s crown, thus still further undermining the notion that Mary’s living, royal will (already severely compromised by the meddling of Winchester and the abuses of the Constable in Mary’s name) is completely her own — rather, events proceed from a conglomeration of contentions and competing wills, split between herself, her religiously conservative advisers, her ambivalent subjects, and her husband. In all ways, the crown is a corporation, but here it is a corporation marred by internecine conflict and disharmony.

[21] The effect is one of implicit criticism of Mary’s reign, to the exaltation of her natural successor Elizabeth, who is presented as a bastion of truth and virtue; as is, by extension, her natural successor, James I. Indeed, at the play’s close, Elizabeth visibly ameliorates the concerns of her wrongdoers by introducing unity and peace — a common and united will which lacks the religious factionalism which had hovered in the background of Sir Thomas Wyatt and was made manifest in If You Know Not Me. As Elizabeth is shown succeeding to the throne, Heywood makes liberal use of such historic coronation tableaux as were designed to equate Elizabeth with religious truth and a flourishing commonwealth. In so doing, Heywood invites his audiences to consider the restoration of peace as ultimately providential (Heywood’s Elizabeth is quick to forgive her former tormentors), as well as the result of a successful relationship between the monarch and her subjects (the subjects, in this case, comprising the members of her council who swore their loyalty). Such an idyllic premise is, of course, historically inaccurate: religious factionalism continued throughout the Elizabethan period and beyond. However, in fore-grounding the divine accession of Elizabeth, despite the questionable nature of her right to rule (by dint of her legal illegitimacy), Heywood further legitimizes the equally ‘illegal’ reign of her successor, with the authority enshrined in religious and divine supremacy. Indeed, the difficulties of Henry’s alleged ‘barring’ of the Stuarts from the throne is deftly taken care of as Elizabeth, brandishing an English Bible as a stage prop, declares,

An English Bible!

Who builds on this, dwells in a happy state:
This is the fountain, clear, immaculate.
That happy issue that shall us succeed,
And in our populous kingdom this book read,
For them, as for our selves, we humbly pray,
They may live long, and blessed. So, lead the way.
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: XXIII. 1559; 1572-1577)

Drawing on the Bible given to Elizabeth during her coronation procession by the city of London, Heywood (who would later chronicle this event in his England’s Elizabeth [1631]) is keen to make clear that the book (as a symbol of the reformed religion) constitutes Elizabeth’s true legacy – a religious purity that will flow to and nourish her successors. That it is an English Bible is of particular relevance. Whilst contemporary accounts of the procession do not make explicit that the book presented was in English, the creation of a new, authoritative English Bible had its roots at King James’s Hampton Court Conference of early 1604 (Hunt 2007: 162). As a consequence, a correlation is implicitly drawn between the childless Elizabeth’s religious legacy and James I, Heywood’s monarch, in a way which makes an artistic play on Henry’s stipulation that, whilst the Stuarts had no place in the succession, the ‘heirs’ of Elizabeth did. It is, of course, no coincidence that the King James Bible project, which sought to correct perceived errors in previous Bibles, entered the early stages of production at the same time the play made its appearance. It is a fact clearly underscored by Elizabeth’s telescoping of time in directly imploring her ‘happy issue’ to ‘lead the way’ not only in succeeding her, but in continuing to provide religious succour to her kingdom. In short, the play encouraged audiences to view religion as solving the succession problems exacerbated by Henry’s will and the resultant arguments put forward by anti-­Catholic writers who had once viewed Stuart succession as a critical threat.

[22] While Mary’s marriage to Philip (so criticized in Sir Thomas Wyatt) is a matter of little political consequence in If You Know Not Me, the 1605 play nevertheless discusses matters of religion in a way that the 1601-2 play does not. With the narrative placing two historical queens at odds, notions of religious schism are, perforce, brought to the fore in a more complex manner. The competing wills (in matters of state religion) of queen and future queen are expounded vociferously, as Elizabeth maintains a willful and steadfast refusal to conform to the religious beliefs of her sister, the Catholic ministers, or her gaoler (with Winchester lamenting the decay of religion she is likely to catalyze and the Constable rebuking her as an ‘alien to us Catholics’). The battle of wills reaches its apex as Mary interviews Elizabeth and, on instructing her sister, ‘I am not of your mind’, is countered by Elizabeth’s ‘I would your highness were’ (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XVIII. 1288-9). Nevertheless, Elizabeth is careful to display the outward appearances of conformity and subjection to Mary’s will, repeating throughout her acceptance of her place as subject. This show of subordination, arguably, is crucial; whilst audiences are encouraged — through the use of dumb show — to appreciate Elizabeth’s dedication to Protestantism, it is no coincidence that her rise to power comes not through rebellion against the state, but through the deaths, in rapid succession, of Winchester, Poole and Mary. Such providential treatment of Elizabeth’s eventual accession is key, as religion plays a fundamental role in If You Know Not Me, with Elizabeth invested with the religious qualities (in addition to a gift for unity and Protestant virtue) that are lacking in Mary. It therefore becomes not only a means of excusing the Stuart succession via allegorical descent, but providing a dramaturgic means of portraying the failures of the one regime to the benefit of another. It is also worth noting that, just as the play was bound by censorship rules to portray Philip positively, so too was it illegal to portray any living sovereign on the stage, even favourably (Heinemann 1980: 39). Nevertheless, the spheres which drama and politics inhabited in the period tended to overlap (as Greg Walker and Henry James have noted in their examination of the succession question as addressed in Gorboduc of 1561), and consequent invitation was made to early-modern audiences to view drama as a direct commentary on contemporary issues (Walker and James 1995: 109-121). As a consequence, the death of a childless queen and the accession of her heir can only have encouraged viewers to further associate the play’s Elizabeth — a virtuous new monarch who had survived religious upheaval and was miraculously given a corporeal Bible by angels — with the newly crowned James, a Protestant heir provided by God despite decades of uncertainty and legal argument which had issued from Henry VIII’s will (Heywood 1935 [1605]: XIV).

[23] As demonstrated, If You Know Not Me shares thematic (as well as historical) concerns with the earlier Sir Thomas Wyatt. As has been seen, the latter explored at some length the danger of unwise and power-hungry council members and noblemen in either misreading or attempting to subvert the will of a deceased monarch, from Wyatt’s specious support of Henry’s will and interpretive creativity in using it as a tool against the Spanish marriage, to Northumberland’s divergent attempt to unseat Mary in favour of his daughter in law. In a similar vein, at the climax of Webster and Dekker, Elizabeth’s clown didactically advises that ‘We must live by the quick, and not by the dead’, a view which elicits the Lord of Tame to ruminate on the mortality of sovereigns and their wills:

Did you not love her father when he liv’d
And yet rejoiced at his funeral:
Likewise her brother, you esteem’d him dear,
Yet once departed, joyfully you sung,
Run to make bonfires, to proclaim your love
Unto the new, forgetting still the old:

Let Princes while they live have love or fear ‘tis fit,
For after death, there’s none continues it.
(Heywood 1935 [1605]: XXII. 1488-1502)

The echoes of Webster and Dekker’s Sir Thomas Wyatt are as unmistakable as Heywood’s point is explicit: the expedient subject would be wise to observe present circumstances, and to be loyal to the institution of the crown rather than to the will of a deceased monarch. Thus, whilst Hunt suggests that the Marian period coincided with a flowering of dramatic material which sought to ‘teach monarchs a lesson’ about heeding wise counsel, it becomes clear that the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period was characterised by an equal concern with educating the subject on his place in a providential commonwealth and stressing the unity of the corporate crown as it passed on via divinely appointed and hereditary succession (Hunt 2009: 570). One can therefore discern a direct indication that devotion to Henry VIII’s contested will, and its inherent bar to the Stuart line, was as futile as the presumptuous regency council’s ambitious pretension in attempting to uphold Edward VI’s Devise. Rather more important (especially so for a country which would be ravaged by civil war a generation later), emphasis is also consistently placed on the inefficacy of factional disputes in breaking royal wills and the need for a wise and unified council.

[24] In conclusion, it may be noted that the authors of Sir Thomas Wyatt employed the unusual historical circumstances of the posthumous, published will of Henry VIII, and the problems it entailed for the Jacobean succession, in order to expound the popular theory of the divine inheritance of a corporate crown. Further, both plays provide a tacit, if persistent, encouragement for subjects to practice pragmatic obeisance and loyalty to the current incumbent to the throne, rather than to a dangerous deference to the perceived wishes of his or her predecessor. It is perhaps to be expected that, given Henry VIII’s unprecedented attempts to secure his will after death, coupled with his son’s attempts at emulation and the subsequent failure of both in fashioning the future of the monarchy from beyond the grave, that dramatists would seek to explore contemporary concerns about succession through the lens of historiography. To Webster and Dekker, Thomas Wyatt presented a historically equivocal figure who supported the popular Queen Elizabeth (of lasting fame and memory), yet who was also responsible for rebellion against the crown, in Webster’s terms, ‘one who subverts the state’. Webster and Dekker invest their representation of Wyatt with an ambiguity which behooved such a divisive and enigmatic figure (aligned as he was with popular opinion but, in the play, tragically misguided by creative and partisan legal interference), and thus use Sir Thomas Wyatt to explore the role and motivation of the subject in a world of competing royal wills, rebellious councillors and a disharmonious body politic. In so doing, they took advantage of the ambiguity of Wyatt’s reputation in order to display the futility of the testamentary royal will in a contemporary political climate that hotly debated the inviolable rights of hereditary succession, and the political theology of the body natural being a separate and changeable entity from the body politic. Similarly, Heywood in If You Know Not Me took advantage of the realpolitik of Tudor history in order to reveal the crown as a site of competing, individual wills acting under the guise of submission, whilst ultimately upholding the virtues of a divine and unalterable succession at the expense of the flawed and unsuccessful, posthumous will of a deceased monarch. In this way, both plays took advantage of the (at first upcoming and then recent) accession of James I and the arguments put forward for and against the Stuart succession as a result of Henry VIII’s last will, in order to reflect on the pitfalls of disputed succession, to display the dangers of rebellion and partisan preoccupation with the legal niceties of that will, and to illustrate the benefits of smooth and divinely ordained transfer of power from the celebrated Elizabeth to her heir presumptive and coreligionist.

University of Strathclyde


[1] In the interests of brevity, the play will be henceforth attributed to Webster and Dekker as in the title page to the printed 1607 edition. [back to text]

[2] Spellings have been modernised from the Malone Society Reprint (1935) edition of the play. [back to text]


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