GHL210064 View of London, published 1647 (engraving) (facsimile copy) (detail) by Hollar, Wenceslaus (1607-77); London Metropolitan Archives, City of London; Czech, out of copyright
‘View of London’ (1647), an engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar © London Metropolitan Archives

This week marks the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Yet the way we remember history’s most renowned playwright might have been very different had it not been for a formidable foe.

In November 1596 a woman named Elizabeth Russell declared war on Shakespeare and his theatrical troupe, in the process nearly destroying the dramatist’s career. Russell rarely features in accounts of Shakespeare’s life, yet her actions determined how we think of him today: as the Shakespeare of the Globe Theatre.

In the National Archives in Kew there is a bundle of curious papers, identified by the prosaic reference number SP 12/260. The documents include two petitions to Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council. The first is headed by Lady Russell and records her endeavour to block the opening of a spectacular new theatre which Shakespeare was about to occupy less than a two-minute walk south of her home in Blackfriars, London. This unassuming manuscript discloses a scarcely believable act of betrayal, for among its 31 signatories are Shakespeare’s publisher, Richard Field, and his patron, George Carey, the Lord Hunsdon.

Two folios on from this, another document, apparently in answer to the first, bears the name “Will[ia]m Shakespeare” and is a counter-plea by the playwright and his fellow actors to allow the theatre to open, complaining that the Blackfriars inhabitants’ mission to “shut up” the playhouse has left them with “no other means whereby to maintain their wives and families”. This counter-petition caused a sensation when it was revealed in 1860 to be an elaborate hoax, fabricated some 30 years previously by the notorious forger John Payne Collier. Touched with infamy by association, Russell’s influential petition dropped out of public consciousness, along with her extraordinary story.

As a Shakespeare scholar with an interest in women’s history, I have long been fascinated by Elizabeth Russell, whose outrageous exploits and impact on the evolution of the Renaissance theatre are the subject of my book Shakespeare and the Countess. Today she is most commonly known for the legends that surround alleged sightings of her ghost in her former home of Bisham Abbey, Berkshire. These tell of “the wicked Lady” reputed to have murdered her infant son. The truth is far more astonishing.

Shakespeare’s nemesis surely deserves to be better known, not least because her machinations highlight a mystery at the heart of the playwright’s life. How did Elizabeth Russell manage to turn his closest friends and allies against him? Who were her other supporters? And why did they want to put his theatrical company out of business?

To answer these questions I began sifting through the tax-returns, immigrant records, letters, Privy Council Acts, legal cases, indentures and leases which I believed could hold the clues to this long-forgotten community of neighbours who lent their names to this anti-theatrical crusade. As I pieced together Russell’s life, mapped the locations of her co-signatories’ homes and businesses, and charted the intrigues that underpinned their religious affiliations, a picture of the political and economic cross-currents that shaped Shakespeare’s own profession began to emerge, along with new discoveries about one of the most significant turning-points in his career.

Early in 1596 Shakespeare was facing a crisis. The playhouse that hosted his early career, known simply as the Theatre, was constructed in Shoreditch in 1576. It was a first foray into the entertainment industry for its founder, the impresario James Burbage. The lease for the land on which the Theatre had been built was due to expire in April 1597, leaving Shakespeare and the theatrical company, the Chamberlain’s Men, with no guaranteed means of future income.

Just southwest of St Paul’s Cathedral, the labyrinthine streets of Blackfriars were home to goldsmiths, clockmakers and felt-makers. Those plying their trades lived cheek-by-jowl with the nobility in this genteel district. When Burbage purchased part of a dissolved monastery here on February 4 1596, with the intention of creating a state-of-the-art theatre, it must have seemed to Shakespeare as if his prayers were about to be answered. Unlike the open-air Shoreditch Theatre, the indoor Blackfriars premises would be able to stay open all year round and ticket prices would be high. Burbage seemed to have rescued the playwright and his associates from financial ruin. Unfortunately for them, their indomitable neighbour had other ideas.

Born in 1540, Lady Russell – known to many as the Dowager Countess of Bedford – was the daughter of religious reformer Sir Anthony Cooke. As tutor to Edward VI, he ensured that Elizabeth and her sisters received an education fit for a king in their home, Gidea Hall in Essex, which was described in 1552 by the Latin scholar Walter Haddon as a “little university” in which “the studies of women were thriving”.

Lady Russell’s robust personality matched her breeding. One contemporary described her as being “more than womanlike”, after witnessing her physically assaulting a nobleman in a court of law. She sparked numerous acts of rioting, violent affray, kidnapping, breaking-and-entering, illegal imprisonment and armed combat. For Russell warfare was a way of life. “A Lady of my place,” she had insisted, should scorn to be “contemptuously trodden on and overbraved by my malicious inferiors and adversaries.” Shakespeare would discover, to his cost, how true this was.

In November 1596, after discovering Burbage’s plans, Russell whipped up a campaign against the backers of the Blackfriars Theatre, producing a petition demanding that “no playhouse may be used or kept there” and that the rowdy players be banned. Members of the nobility, church ministers, local businessmen, a dissector of human bodies, and operatives in the Queen’s secret services were among those who answered her call to arms. She could expect to be triumphant: the Privy Council’s distinguished members included her brother-in-law, William Cecil, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer; her nephew, Robert Cecil, who was secretary of state; and her kinsman, William Brooke, Lord Cobham.

Portrait of Elizabeth Russell, Lady Hoby
Portrait of Elizabeth Russell, Lady Hoby (c1596-1600), possibly by an artist in the circle of Robert Peake © Bridgeman, Girts Gailans/Red Image

Lady Russell’s actions were partly a case of nimbyism. The noise pollution, the unruliness of the playgoers, the increased traffic in the area and the threat of the spread of the plague in the confined space of the theatre were no welcome prospect. She was, however, propelled by other concerns.

Not more than 187ft southeast of the Dowager’s Blackfriars house stood St Anne’s Church. This was no ordinary place of worship; it was a hub of non-conformist activity, frequently under investigation for its members’ resistance to the state religion – a more moderate form of Protestantism than they were willing to stomach. At the frontline of this holy war was Elizabeth Russell, who had made the Puritan-controlled St Anne’s her centre of operations.

Many of the men who would help Russell bring the curtain down on the Blackfriars Theatre had a personal stake in her church, which was practically attached to the northeastern side of the new playhouse through an interlocking system of tenements. Richard Field, the Stratford-born printer and schoolmate of Shakespeare, who published the dramatist’s Venus and Adonis in 1593, was one such. The exact location of Field’s printing press has long remained unknown. During my research I discovered that not only was it situated almost directly next-door to Lady Russell’s Blackfriars home, but that Field had a parallel career as one of the administrators of St Anne’s.

While the Puritan objection to the frivolities of playgoing had become something of a commonplace, often used to explain the residents’ opposition to the Blackfriars Theatre, Russell’s interests were as political as they were moral. She and Shakespeare were fighting a greater battle which the dramatist had brought to the public stage, embroiling the figureheads of the intense factionalism which was at the time raging in the royal court. Earlier in 1596 the playwright had lampooned members of the Dowager’s coterie in Henry IV, Part 1. One of Shakespeare’s best-loved creations, the play’s cowardly and raucous knight Falstaff originally trod the boards by another name: John Oldcastle. The real Oldcastle’s living descendant was Lord Cobham, father-in-law to Robert Cecil and Russell’s neighbour in Blackfriars.

The Cobham family and their Cecil kinsmen had particular cause to be worried about Henry IV, Part 1. It was part of a cycle of plays that augmented the reputation of their chief rival, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Claiming descent from Henry IV, Essex had, as witnesses testified, been “so often present at the playing” of these histories, cheering on his forbear “with great applause”. Shakespeare would later praise Essex directly as “the General of our gracious Empress” in Henry V, enshrining his connection with these English kings.

Elizabeth Russell became convinced that the enmity between the Cobham/Cecil and Essex factions was putting the Queen’s life in jeopardy. As Essex’s power base grew, Shakespeare’s patron George Carey was called upon to prove his loyalty to the Cecil regime. Carey was related to the Dowager through the marriage of his sister to her son, Edward, and was at this time seriously strapped for cash. Russell’s kinsmen were cleverly withholding lucrative offices which were his only hope of redressing his “poor estate”. He could not afford to antagonise them.

The Henry IV plays concealed another nasty surprise for Elizabeth Russell. Shakespeare’s Oldcastle had a drink-loving buffoonish comrade-in-arms called John Russell, the namesake of her deceased second husband. Her intimates on the Privy Council reacted quickly, with Cobham forcing Shakespeare to banish these offensive names from the plays. The humiliated dramatist would claim his revenge on Russell by embedding taunts at her expense in The Merry Wives of Windsor and, as some critics believe, caricaturing her son, Thomas Posthumous Hoby, through the cantankerous Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

A bankrupt James Burbage died shortly after being prohibited from using the Blackfriars Theatre. His sons, Richard and Cuthbert, inherited his debts and urgently needed to devise a new scheme. In December 1598 they dismantled the Shoreditch Theatre, using the remnants to construct a new playhouse at Bankside, on the other side of the Thames from Blackfriars. Here, the Globe Theatre sat alongside bear-baitings and brothels, an area free from the dominating Puritan presence of Blackfriars – and from Russell’s control.

To fund the enterprise the Burbage brothers hit on an entirely unprecedented business model. They offered a larger interest in the venture to Shakespeare and four other actor-sharers than had ever before been negotiated. Each paid £100 towards the cost of completing the playhouse. In exchange they became part-owners of the Globe, able to reap 10 per cent of the profits.

Elizabeth Russell had unwittingly secured Shakespeare’s long-term success and his indelible association with the Globe. Perhaps Shakespeare himself sensed the irony of this, for he may have used her as the model for the Dowager Countess of Roussillon in All’s Well That Ends Well, the character which George Bernard Shaw described as “the most beautiful old woman’s part ever written”.

Chris Laoutaris is author of ‘Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe’ (Fig Tree)

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