The first emergence of Classical-Pagan occultism in England is seen in the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), who ruled as the Virgin Queen from 1558 until her death. At least, this is where the phenomenon first obtrudes into the history books.
Through secret societies, such Classical-Pagan influence seeds and precipitates the English Renaissance, bypassing the dead hand of Church and State to belatedly find expression, flowering just when the country was struggling to to survive after a century of disintegration.
The Royal Astrologer and Mathematician, Sir John Dee (1527-1609), it is well known, was a deep occultist, the father of English Rosicrucianism and a sorcerer widely credited with summoning up the storm which shattered the huge invasion force heading for its shores in the form of the Spanish Armada, the largest fleet ever assembled.
The Tudor centralization necessitated the destruction of the English aristocracy as a power to rival the Crown’s and as the last bastion of resistance to the Reformation Protestant ascendancy which had already subsumed the Church and the monasteries. Elizabeth’s reign, dazzling as her Court was, empowered an imperium of drabness from which the culture has only sporadically shown signs of recovery ever since. In the last decade of the sixteenth century, the Reformation turned its baleful eye on the London stage, which had struggled into existence from the late 1560s onwards and now, in the nineties, faced extinction.
At that moment a blazing spear appears, a lance of truth is shaken at the dragon of ignorance, and the great lizard backs off. The writer known as ‘Shake-spear’ (sic) announces himself under a war-like pseudonym in direct opposition to this asphyxiating tide of orthodoxy and hypocrisy, personified in the English would-be dictator, the dwarfish, scoliotic hunchback Robert Cecil. Cecil wanted to destroy the theatre and was now making murderous forays into its ranks, deploying both the naked power of the Star Chamber and its legion of torturers, as well as the hidden hand in the form of agents and cut-outs using methods of dagger and poison. In 1594, Cecil was winning. By 1598, he had lost, his 1597 order to ‘pluck down’ the theatres ignored, and his power, by that token, limited by a powerful cultural resistance.
Cecil, whose family had enriched itself enormously from the Reformation of the monasteries, had every reason to fear the theatre. Apart the seditious tendencies inherent in any artistic milieu, and its unmanageable and inevitable possibilities as a venue for free thought, through veiled, metaphorical speech – ultimately unpatrollable – the theatre was an anomalous survival of the aristocratic taste for display, colour and costume, spectacle, poetry and music, disguise and identity-play. Cecil’s war on the theatre, which by 1594 had martyred three high-profile victims, now faced a formidable opponent; this new voice emerged, roused and armed to the teeth with hatred and wit – a hatred not just political, but cultural, spiritual and deeply personal.
This voice was polished and rough, sophisticated and raw, and could hold the ear of Courtier, law student, Member of Parliament and commoner alike, uniting London in bristling contempt against the manipulator, as it turned him into the morally and physically twisted, repulsive Richard III – the spider king. Apart from the spear shaken in his face, Cecil could feel the daggers, expertly placed, sliding between his ribs.
The voice seemed to be coming from somewhere close. It was ragged with the fury of a dying breed, no doubt one of the ‘wolfish earls’ as Walt Whitman tagged them, the ‘handsome long-legged courtiers with whom Elizabeth surrounded herself’ – courtiers among whom he had grown up, despised and mocked, he knew, behind his back, however courteously they treated him to his face. Now that he had succeeded his father as First Adviser to the Queen, now that he controlled Walsingham’s spies and assassins, the Privy Council, and the Star Chamber, he would work to destroy them all; but already he was feeling the backlash, the lash of a tongue whose root he could not trace to tear it out and to stop it humiliating him, over and over again, night after night in the playhouses, over and over again in sold out quartos. He could do nothing, because to take action would be to admit that he was King Richard, the most evil king, according to Tudor mythology, under whom the land had ever suffered.
The spider knew how to wait. It would have to.
Where was this opposition coming from? Who was brandishing this ‘spear’ and driving those knives into his diminutive, hated body?
VULTUS TELA VIBRAT!
Thy countenance shakes spears.
Thy countenance: Shakespeare’s.
MENTE VIDEBORI. By the mind, I shall be seen.
The Great Hall in her father’s great new Palace on the banks of the Thames outside London, Hampton Court, Elizabeth’s Versailles, is adorned with ‘eavesdroppers’ – three-dimensional wooden figures, leaning over a balcony right up under the roof, their heads and shoulders visible from below.
One of the most famous portraits of the Virgin Queen, the so-called Rainbow Portrait, depicts her wearing a gown with human eyes and ears sewn all over it. The message is: I see everything. I hear everything.
The brutal religious, intellectual and political repression of Elizabeth’s reign, as is well known, created a world of espionage and counter-espionage, rat-lines and priest-holes, an underground milieu working for or against her (or both). The wilderness of black mirrors which is the intelligence world dates its inception, in backward England at least, from this time. The first co-ordinator of this intelligence and counter-intelligence service for Elizabeth was the occultist Sir John Dee, succeeded by Sir Francis Walsingham, before it fell into the hands of Cecil after Walsingham’s death.
But apart from the various levels of overt and covert warfare continuing between London and Rome, we also see the formation of a second underground in the secret societies. Many of the leading figures in the Court and the culture at this time have connections with such ‘freethinking’ groups. Raleigh’s School of Night was one such society – Marlowe was associated with this group – and Cecil hated Raleigh like no-one else, marking him as his greatest quarry, to be pursued by stealthy webs over the course of decades, a long and patient hunt which finally captured and destroyed its quarry in 1618.
In retrospect we can see that a figure of much more lasting influence was accruing power in both open and invisible ways, as the multi-talented Sir Francis Bacon, later Lord Verulam, climbed the government ladder step by step whilst simultaneously working in secret to achieve his far-reaching aims. It would take a lifetime of study to comprehend and define the exact scope and extent of this man’s cultural, intellectual and historical influence, the most lasting aspects of which were achieved behind the scenes.
Bacon’s proto-Rosicrucian Order of the Knights of the Helmet comprised or supervised a scriptorium which included at some points several dozen scribes and writers, the key figures among them initiates of the Order, including, it appears, the great Ben Jonson. The Order was dedicated to the God Apollo, the Archer, and the Goddess Athena (the ‘Spear-Shaker’) and its mark was the Double-A (one light, one dark) motif, which functions as an identifying signature, to those in the know, in the many publications which the Order produced and promoted: including both Shake-speare’s Sonnets (1609) and the First Folio (1623).
Bacon’s ambitions were transformative and Utopian. He wanted to create a new Atlantis across the Atlantic Ocean, and was instrumental in its inception. But first he needed to facilitate an intellectual revolution in England, a revolution in knowledge, and to make that happen he needed writers who could integrate the culture and elevate the English language, in imitation of what he had seen achieved by the poets of the Pleiade in France, to the level of a noble tongue like Latin or Greek. Thus his interests partly overlapped with those of the Crown, which was working with increasing urgency to create a sense of cohesive national identity in a country which had been tearing itself apart for a hundred years and was permanently threatened with destruction, from within or without, by its great enemy Rome, working through its satellites France and Spain.
The theatre was a vital part of this project to create a nation, and had been licensed by the Queen in 1567 and promoted, protected and financed by key Privy Councillors and courtiers. The writer known as Shakespeare, though long before he assumed that name, had been a major part of the first wave, contributing nationalistic, pro-Tudor propaganda plays to tie in with the potently designed personality cult of the Queen and the various other strands of the propaganda effort. All his work at this time – everything up to 1593, in fact – appears in print, if it appears at all, anonymously. The author had at this point still not given up his ambitions for military command or political power through the Privy Council, and was still being goaded to give up the pen for the sword.
It was only later, his life torn apart by scandals and feuds, banished from the Court, that he committed full-time and full-being to proving he was the greatest writer England had ever or would ever see. And anonymity was a now necessary mask.
When Christopher Marlowe, the Muses’ Darling, (who had grown famous under his own name), disappeared from sight, a new name was coined for the writer in question, who now committed both to the culture war with Cecil and his ‘reptilians’ (as his faction was known at Court) and to his own destiny and legacy as a writer. For him the name was a new identity, a way of outgrowing a fatally damaged reputation. In the public eye, the name was a war-cry, a spearhead, an announcement that Cecil would not go unopposed.
In a well-known study of the biographies of the twenty best known theatre writers of this period, it emerges that nineteen of them spent time in jail, often for reasons connected with what they wrote. Ben Jonson had two spells in prison. Thomas Kyd, Marlowe’s intimate, was tortured to death – or rather, tortured to within an inch of his life and then allowed to stagger home to die, so his friends could see what had been done to him. Marlowe was either murdered or spirited out of the country – the jury is still out on that question. Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, Marlowe’s patron and protector, was dead within a year from arsenic poisoning.
The only exception is Shakespeare – the only writer never to do time – despite his association with explosively controversial and seditious works such as the Richard plays, Richard III an excoriating personal attack on the quasi-dictator Robert Cecil, Richard II depicting the deposition and death of a king on stage, played on the night before the ‘Main Plot’ or ‘Essex Plot’ to overthrow the government (though not the Queen), which led to executions or the Tower for all the participants.
But not Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was never arrested, never spent a night in jail. Was never questioned in connection with the conspiracy. Never tortured.
Never got paid, either, for any of his plays.
The reason for this is quite simple: he didn’t exist.
The war on theatre coincides or follows on from the eradication of countryside festival and holiday traditions such as mumming and maypole dancing. It is part of a war on colour, display and traditions, the destruction of everything good about the old world along with the appropriation of all that was bad, by the new ascendancy of grey. The Reformation had gobbled up the wealth of monasteries and now wielded the power of the Crown, its ally against the feudal aristocracy. These forces, bound together in fascis, were gaining ground with the inevitability of an impersonal historical force. The future belonged to the reptiles.
Only not yet, and never entirely.
Shakespeare was no Utopian and his unruly talent and voracious intellect, at least in his creative maturity, would not be subsumed to any programme or toe any political line, for good or evil. Nevertheless, Bacon’s order of invisibility would promote him, publish him, guard his works and his identity, and even, quite possibly, give him his name.
There is no doubt that Shakespeare was connected in some way with the Bacon milieu. The Double-A of Apollo and Athena is all over the head- and foot-pieces in SHAKE-SPEAR’S SONNETS, which appeared posthumously in 1609 and was immediately banned by the government, and all copies which could be found seized and destroyed within days of publication. Only a couple of dozen copies survived, as far as we know to date – but we know from them that the Order was behind the publication.
Other intriguing pieces of evidence survive. On a piece of scrap parchment found among Bacon’s papers (the ‘Northumberland Manuscript), we see the founder of the Order writing the name ‘William Shakespeare’ over and over again in his flowing secretary script.
Is this Bacon trying out a new name, repeating it, getting used to it? – though not a pseudonym for himself. Bacon, for all his multi-faceted genius, was not Shakespeare. His style was admired for its terse compression where Shakespeare’s gift was expansive, extravagant, profligate. His is not the ‘biography without a writer’ we are looking for. But Bacon clearly played some role in the choice of the right pseudonym for the ‘new’ voice about to be launched in full cry, using the theatre to save the theatre and with it the literary renaissance which was taking root in England. Shakespeare’s own politics didn’t matter – his power and range, his sweetness and fury, were to be harnessed by the Order in the name of linguistic and intellectual revitalization.
When ‘Shakespeare’ died, he left behind 18 unpublished plays – half of his entire output. Most had been performed, but the world could not read them until they appeared in the posthumous collected plays of Shakespeare – the ‘First Folio’ of 1623. We don’t know where he left them; the will of Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere (probably a phonetic spelling of the Norman name Jacques-Pierre) of Stratford-upon-Avon makes no reference to any literary properties, finished or unfinished, published or unpublished.
This is no mystery about this. He hadn’t written anything.
Yet the eighteen plays just suddenly appear in 1623, in an edition attributed to the work of two players acting as collectors and editors, along with all the published plays, which had appeared in authorised and updated editions throughout the nineties and early sixteen-hundreds, ceasing in 1604 after the literary version of Hamlet.
What seems likely is that the Knights of the Helmet were the guardians of Shakespeare’s literary properties after his death and oversaw the editorial process as well as the posthumous collaborations necessary to bring to completion certain unfinished plays. Ben Jonson, a Knight of the scriptorium and Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary, was then deployed to throw chaff and point in the direction of William Shakspere of Stratford, a broker of plays and ostensibly a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s/ King’s Men. Shakespeare’s true identity was then successfully masked, whether through further interventions or merely the natural processes of stupidity, for a further 297 years.
The new secret societies in evidence at this time, then, were perhaps ‘occult’ without the darker connotations we give that word today. They were occult in the Pythagorean tradition; they preserved the seeds of free thought through pagan and classical wisdoms which would flower into the late-arriving English Renaissance. Let it be said, then: a secret society is not inherently evil merely by the fact of its existence; a secret society is a tool, a medium, a sequestered space. What happens there depends on the forces which succeed in inhabiting that space. And the nature of those forces, of course, depends on the kind of invocations which are uttered within it.