Steven veerapen

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Top 10 Tudor Mysteries

For a period so well studied, there remain a number of important things about the Tudor era we simply don’t know. Less surprisingly, there are numerous incidents and issues over which people disagree (sometimes passionately). What follows is a run-down of my Top 10 Tudor mysteries, unknowns, and areas of debate. Feel free to disagree with any of my conclusions…

10. In Suspicious Circumstances: Was Amy Dudley murdered?

This one has exercised minds and pens for centuries. Amy Dudley, née Robsart, was the first wife of Elizabeth I’s great favourite Robert Dudley (later ennobled as the 1st earl of Leicester). The marriage, celebrated in the summer of 1550, was initially, probably, a love match. Following it, Dudley certainly had his ups and downs (particularly during the reign of Mary I); yet his star would rise significantly following the accession of his friend Elizabeth (then known as the Lady Elizabeth) as queen. Soon enough, scandalous gossip held that Elizabeth and Dudley were in love (or lust), and poor Amy relegated to a life away from court. Rumours circulated of her having a malady in one of her breasts, and it was speculated that the new queen and her beau were simply waiting for her to die so that they might marry. They didn’t have to wait too long. In 1560, Amy was found at the foot of a staircase in Cumnor Place, where she was residing. She had reportedly dismissed her servants from the house (demanding, in fact, that they leave to attend a fair). Needless to say, a furore resulted; surely Dudley had ordered his wife’s murder so that he might marry the flirtatious queen? Inthe coming years, one Richard Verney would be named as the killer in numerous early (hostile) sources, and mysterious details would be added (such as Amy’s headdress being undisturbed on her head despite her supposed tumble). But what really happened?

We don’t know. The recently-rediscovered coroner’s report rules Amy’s death an accident (and evidently those at the time were keen that it be ruled as nothing else, whether murder or suicide). We are hampered by not knowing the poor woman’s mental state or the truth of her physical health at the time of her death. Theories have abounded, of course: it was murder, organised by Dudley, with or without Queen Elizabeth’s connivance; it was murder, organised by Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil (who sought to blacken Dudley’s name sufficiently that Elizabeth could never wed him); it was a tragic accident brought about by the weakening of Amy’s bones through cancer; it was suicide. As far as I’m aware, no one has suggested it was murder by an unknown opportunistic home invader, or an unidentified friend or intimate of Amy’s. I make no strong judgement here, though I lean towards accident or suicide. Dudley was, during the course of his career, accused of myriad murders (the scandalous and inaccurate Leicester’s Commonwealth being his chief accuser), but there’s no evidence that he engineered or committed any. Further, the hostile view of him as a Machiavellian killer hardly chimes with the ordering of a slaying that could so easily be construed as outright murder (although, admittedly, this might just have been the actual killer’s incompetence at work). Whatever the truth, Dudley went on entertaining hopes of marrying Elizabeth (until his eventual remarriage to Lettice Knollys in 1578), and the queen went on loving him, and occasionally being frustrated with him, until his death in 1588. I do rather like the theory that Amy, knowing she was terminally ill, colluded with Cecil and offered herself up for what she knew would be considered murder, purely to prevent her widower (whom she’d grown to think a danger to the country) marrying Elizabeth. But do I believe it? Nah.

9. Gloriana’s Children: Was Elizabeth I really a virgin?

Interest in the sex lives of historical monarchs is inevitable. As primogeniture dictated lines of succession, it can hardly be helped. Yet Queen Elizabeth, in her day and in the centuries since, has probably had her bedchamber activities speculated upon more than any other sovereign in English history. During her lifetime, people were hanged for accusing her of keeping lovers and having secret children by them. Libellous pamphlets were routinely banned for saying much the same thing. One particularly bizarre tale emerged of her decamping to the countryside to give birth, only to stuff the unfortunate infants up chimneys. In 1587, a mysterious young man turned up in Spain claiming to be called ‘Arthur Dudley’; his story was that he was the illegitimate offspring of the queen by her great favourite, and that he’d been raised in ignorance and secrecy until the truth came out and he fled the realm. Today, there are some who claim (with straight faces) that Elizabeth produced children by Admiral Thomas Seymour and/or the earl of Oxford and/or the earl of Leicester. One theory holds that Francis Bacon was the result of an illicit coupling. Another puts in a bid for the 3rd earl of Southampton being her lovechild. Was the famous Virgin Queen, then, as chaste as she claimed, or about as pure as the driven slush?

In truth, Elizabeth almost certainly lived and died a virgin. The rumours (old and new) of her secret children range from the diverting to the ridiculous (no, Francis Bacon having curlyblack hair and dark eyes does not make him the son of Elizabeth and Leicester, thank you very much). That said, I do not quite accept the argument that her life was so public that she couldn’t have had sexual intercourse; there are always ways and means, if the willing pair are intent on it. Nor do I think that we can confidently assume her virginity because, if she hadn’t retained it, stories would have leaked (clearly all kinds of stories did leak – they just aren’t credible). It’s also often said that the queen wouldn’t have risked pregnancy due to the danger it would place her in – she would have risked her throne. Yet that argument does something of a disservice to the many, many women in the period who risked what were their entire lives (they faced social ostracism, loss of reputation and a future, penury, and whipping) by engaging in ‘illicit’ sex. So why do I still think she was a virgin? Elizabeth stated that she was, and there has never been a single, reliable piece of evidence to the contrary (and yes, I discount the ridiculous ‘proof’ of the so-called ‘pregnancy portrait’). That’s good enough for me.

8. Saint or Sinner?: Did Thomas More really torture heretics?

Thanks to the enormous and deserved success of Hilary Mantel’s magisterial Wolf Hall trilogy, Thomas More’s reputation has undergone something of a reappraisal. Rather than the saintly image (and More is indeed a Catholic saint) promoted by Robert Bolt in A Man For All Seasons, the scholar is now frequently judged, in the court of public opinion, to have been a rotter. He was, according to Mantel’s depiction, a sneering religious fanatic – an unpleasant, persecution-loving counterpoint to Cromwell’s easy-going and affable humanist. The irony is that the easy-going humanist tag is one Bolt had applied to More; and it is difficult not to see strong shades of Paul Scofield’s Thomas More (in the 1966 production of A Man For All Seasons) in Mark Rylance’s performance as Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. One of the most common accusations made against More was that he personally tortured suspected reformist heretics in his gatehouse at Chelsea. But is it true?

We don’t know. The claims that More tortured heretics were greatly publicised in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (often known as the Book of Martyrs), but Foxe had an agenda in playing up the supposed cruelty and barbarity inflicted upon the early reformers. No evidence actually exists that More whipped, starved, or tortured anyone – and, in his day, he explicitly denied these claims. What is certainly true is that he became increasingly entrenched in his dedication to stamping out ‘heresy’ when he was in a position to do so – but, it should be acknowledged, nearly everyone on either side of Henry VIII’s break with Rome was forced to double down as the ‘Great Matter’ reached its climax. This was a battle for the survival of their souls and the soul of England. More, thus, was happy to order searches for evangelical literature and to consign those he deemed most dangerous to the flames: this was, after all, the penalty for unrepentant offenders, and they knew it. The prevailing attitude of the time was rather akin to modern attitudes towards drugs: lay readers who dabbled in evangelicalism were like unfortunate addicts, who might be reformed, whereas those importing heretical texts were more dangerous, akin to pushers and drug barons who seek to corrupt their fellow humans. They had to be eradicated to solve the problem. In this light, More was not a mad monster but a product of his time – and he probably didn’t actively torture anyone.

7: The Lady in the Tower: Who killed Anne Boleyn?

You might (fairly) point out that we know the answer: it was a Calais swordsman who ended Anne’s life on the scaffold in 1536 (though his identity and origin are also shrouded in mystery). But debate continues to rage about who was really behind Anne’s downfall and death. We know the story: Henry was apparently courting Jane Seymour, yet still arduously insisting on Anne being recognised by the Holy Roman Emperor (his nephew, Charles V). Then, swiftly, suddenly, favoured courtiers (and a musician) were arrested. Anne herself was taken up and warded in the Tower. The queen, it seemed, had been unfaithful with numerous members of the English court, and she and they had engaged in treasonable talk which touched on Henry’s death. The king’s man, Thomas Cromwell, was only too eager to see these appalling crimes brought to light – and brought to trial. This took place: the five men (Francis Weston, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, and – most scandalously – Anne’s brother George, Lord Rochford) were all found guilty of sleeping with the queen and plotting treason. Anne’s own guilty verdict was thus a foregone conclusion. After their executions, she went to her own. Historians now largely agree that the whole thing was a frame-up: one of the most scandalous mockeries of justice in English legal history. But who was behind it? Was it Henry VIII? Was it Cromwell, who had quarrelled with Anne over the uses to which revenue raised from dissolving monasteries should be put, and who struck before she could strike him?

It was Henry. Thomas Cromwell has long suffered a reputation as the archetypal political snake – an evil, remorseless man who marched to his own drummer, provided that drummer was leading him to greater power, wealth, and influence. Remorseless he was, but in 1536 he was simply not powerful enough to accuse a queen (and influential courtiers) of these kinds of crimes – not unless he knew his master was on the same page. Others, of course, are free to disagree. Although we can never know for sure how Henry’s apparent loyalty to Anne turned to cold hatred so quickly, I hold to the following sequence of events: Henry had decided to rid himself of his wife early in 1536 (following her loss of a male child). He charged Cromwell with finding the means (as he’d later demand the same man find a way of undoing his match with Anne of Cleves). Cromwell’s solution was adulterous treason, which he floated to Henry. Henry acquiesced – with the proviso that he, Henry, must appear the victim – certainly, he must not look like a laughable cuckold. Cromwell knew what to do – he was, after all, a highly intelligent man. If Anne’s ‘crimes’ could be sufficiently monstrous, the king would not be laughed at – the whole world would be too busy exclaiming over the scandalous levels of debauchery in which the queen had been engaged. Indeed, people would congratulate the king on what a lucky escape he’d had from a semi-demonic pervert of a woman. Accordingly, not one man was found but five – and one of them her own brother. Henry, meanwhile, keenly kept up appearances – he had to be seen to be supporting his wife, so that when the accusations were made public, he could appear suitably shocked. Cromwell then went to work – at every stage with his master’s approval. His genius was probably in really planting in Henry’s mind the idea that there might even have been some substance to the accusations, arising as he conducted his enquiries – and the king would certainly have welcomed this. Anne’s death and the deaths of the men condemned with her represent a travesty of justice. But we can safely lay it all at Henry VIII’s door.

6. The King’s Whelps: Was Henry VIII the father of Mary Boleyn’s children

People have long speculated on how many illegitimate offspring Henry VIII might have sired. Two of the most commonly cited candidates are the children – either one or both – of Mary Boleyn: Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys (born c1522) and Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon (born 1526). Officially, of course, both children were the product of Mary’s marriage to William Carey. Those who suspect that King Henry was the true father can point to the lack of clarity in the timing of his affair with Mary Boleyn. As this liaison is often considered (though not known) to have ended earlier in the decade, Catherine is generally promoted as the probable royal by-blow. The rumours are hardly new. It was whispered in the 1530s that young Henry Carey was Henry VIII’s bastard, and Catherine’s closeness later in life to Queen Elizabeth fuelled secret talk that they were half-sisters. But is there any truth to the claims?

We don’t know. And what is crucial here is that, in the absence of DNA evidence (which obviously did not exist in the period), we cannot know. What’s more, those rumours which circulated during the lifetimes of the Carey offspring are also of absolutely no value in giving us an answer, or even an indication of likelihood – because no one at the time, save (one assumes) Mary Boleyn, and potentially Henry VIII and William Carey, knew. And none of them were talking. We thus know nothing of how often Mary slept with the king versus how often she slept with her husband (nor when she was doing either). As far as we know, she held to the line that the children were her husband’s, and so did both her husband and the king (who certainly never acknowledged either child as his own, if he even knew the truth of the matter). The safest option, therefore, is to assume that they were not Henry’s children.

5. “Move It, Football Head”: What Ever Happened to James IV?

James IV is one of the unsung heroes of Scottish history. He spoke numerous languages, was an artistic and literary patron, oversaw the early Scottish Renaissance, and established the country as a European player (winning acclaim from Pope Julius II as one of the continental sovereigns worthy of high deference). His marriage to Margaret Tudor produced James V (the only legitimate son survived into adulthood), and less admirably he sired a number of illegitimate children by multiple mistresses. Yet he is, unfortunately, best known for his ending: when Henry VIII invaded France, James IV elected to stand by his French allies and invade England from the north, notwithstanding that this resulted in his excommunication (as France was then under papal interdict as a result of the Vatican-backed Holy League against the French). One of James IV’s defining faults, recognised years earlier, was his hot-headedness: it was said that he could not issue orders like a good commander but, full of vim and vigour, would ride out at the head of his armies. His militancy failed him during this invasion. His forces met those of the English earl of Surrey, and the result was James’s death, and the deaths of a panoply of Scottish nobles and religious leaders, on Flodden Field in 1513. When the bloody battle was over, the English queen, Katherine of Aragon, who was deputising for Henry whilst he was in France, reportedly wanted to send the recovered royal corpse over the Channel – but English sensibilities balked, and she had to be satisfied with despatching his blood-soaked surcoat to her husband, with the suggestion that it be workedinto a victory banner. Yet the fate of James’s disfigured body – which had been pierced by arrows and sliced by billhooks – would endure a more mysterious fate.

The situation was complicated by the fact that the Scottish king had died excommunicate. His corpse was transported south but remained above ground, rotting in a woodshed or storeroom in the monastery at Sheen – an appalling act of neglect on the part of first Henry VIII and then successive Tudor monarchs. Following the Dissolution, the body was rediscovered and became something of a conversation piece. It wasn’t until Elizabeth’s reign that significant attention was again given to it – and this in the form of workmen pulling off the royal head and apparently using it as a football. The queen’s master glazier supposedly rescued it – after a fashion – by recovering it, taking it home as a souvenir, and later giving it to St Michael’s in London for interment (that site now being underneath a pub). The body would disappear, perhaps following some kind of burial at Sheen (now a golf course). With that, the fate of James IV’s body and its adventures in Tudor England remain a mystery – as does the truth of the tales of its gruesome afterlives. Yet, following Flodden, rumours persisted that the king hadn’t in fact died; he had escaped the battle by giving his surcoat to another man, and gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For years, this ‘lost prince’ idea would gain traction, with his widow, Margaret Tudor, even attempting to make political use of it. Other tales would emerge that the switching of the coat was true, but that James had still died and been buried in Scotland – at Hume Castle or Roxburghe. It’s far too late to be sure of what happened to his body, but we can be relatively certain that the king died as was reported – at Flodden. Still, it is tantalising to think that another ‘Richard III in the car park’ is at this moment under someone’s feet – just another royal corpse given short shrift by the Tudors.

4. What’s in a Name?: Who was Martin Marprelate

Who says Puritans are humourless? The idea of the dour Puritan is given the lie by the extraordinary events of 1588-9. Elizabeth I’s insistence on a middle-ground Protestant English Church, with (she hoped) enough ceremony to satisfy moderate Catholics, was not universally popular. It certainly wasn’t much liked by those who wanted a more thorough ‘cleansing’ of Catholic practices: these people, derisively called Puritans, were hoping for greater reform. The queen, however, was opposed to ongoing religious debates, and certainly opposed to them being played out in public. It was thus to her and her government’s chagrin that a number of printed pamphlets began appearing in 1588, to be shared, read aloud, remembered, and laughed over by the common man. The problem was that these pamphlets weren’t just religious: they were funny. Each of them was boldly printed with its author’s name: ‘Martin Marprelate’ – an obvious pseudonym, the joke being that the texts would ‘mar’ (or stain) prelates. And they did. Real-life Church officials, bishops, and archbishops were lambasted. The low-born Bishop Cooper, despite being the son of a tailor rather than a cooper, was mocked as ‘Tom Tub-trimmer’. The archbishop of Canterbury was not ‘his Grace’ but ‘his Grease’ – a ‘petty pope’. The Church, misguidedly, attempted to counter this by publishing weighty, high-brow tomes arguing against the debasement of religious debate from the theological to the personal. Martin simply made more fun of the clerics. Exasperated, the state then hired poets to meet their foe in kind. But even celebrated wits were hampered in their efforts to act as the government’s pet satirists; Martin could – and did – personally insult and mock identifiable public figures, whereas those countering him couldinsult only an invisible man and the general stereotype of Puritans (which Martin himself was undermining). As one text gleefully laughed: ‘What though I were hanged, do you think your cause shall be the better? For the day that you hang Martin, assure yourselves there will twenty Martins spring in my place!’ So who was Martin Marprelate

In truth, we can’t be sure. In fact, it is possible that there was a syndicate of Puritans behind the pithy pamphlets. John Penry, Job Throckmorton, and Roger Williams have all been suggested as possible authors, with Penry the most convincing (though he obviously denied it). Making identification more difficult is the fact that the man or men behind Martin had in their possession a moveable press; when the authorities got too close, the means of production could simply be moved. Even after that press was seized in Manchester in 1589, a final tract, The Protestation of Martin Marprelate, would appear. Martin would eventually go silent – but he’d done his job. He’d taken religious debate out of the hands of the Anglican hierarchy and put it squarely in those of the people.

3. The Body Politic: What ailed the Tudors?

It’s long been popular to speculate on the illnesses and diseases which afflicted monarchs. During their lifetimes, it was dangerous to do so openly (especially after Henry VIII’s updated treason laws), but it remained the case that any illness experienced by the sovereign could have vast political implications. Nor did these discussions end with their deaths. More recently, scholars have argued that Henry VIII’s blood carried the rare Kell antigen (which apparently accounts for his and his wives’ reproductive records); that Henry VIII had the endocrine disorder Cushing’s syndrome (explaining his appearance); that Elizabeth I was poisoned by white lead makeup (based on the faulty notion that she slathered herself in white lead makeup); that Mary I had hypothyroidism; that Elizabeth I, again, had Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. The lack of clarity on Wolsey’s final illness has even led to speculation in fictional treatments that he might have taken his own life to avoid the Tower and scaffold. But how sure can we be about any of these things?

The answer is not very. Retroactive diagnoses can be interesting and illuminating, but they must also be taken with a clear (excuse the pun) health warning. No physician would confidently diagnose a patient without examining them, and any examination is obviously out of the question when that patient has been dead for centuries. Further, it is impossible to clinically test the extent to which reported chronic physical complaints are (or were) caused by genetics versus lifestyle or environment (it being obviously wildly unethical to swaddle a child under Tudor conditions, before giving them a Tudor-era noble diet rich in meat and deficient in vegetables, and then treating their every illness with ghastly period remedies). Thus, retroactive diagnoses must remain inconclusive, however persuasive they might be. This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t examine medical histories – only that we must be incredibly sensitive to the wider range of factors affecting these historical figures (as, for example, is Sylvia Barbara Soberton in her Medical Downfall of the Tudors) than we can possibly test for today.

2. The Tudor Titanic: What sunk the Mary Rose?

Henry VIII’s great warship the Mary Rose was one of the wonders of her day. She weighed in at nearly 800 tons and was bristling with dozens of guns. To Henry, she was a source of pride: a symbol in wood and sail of his mastery of the seas. Launched in 1511 and refitted in 1536, she gave decades of service to her country. And then, in July 1545, whilst engaging with French galleys, and as the king watched from shore, the great ship keeled over in the Solent and sank to the bottom of the Channel, taking hundreds of men with her. What on earth had happened?

We don’t know for certain. Theories have abounded about the ship being top heavy, of portholes and gunports being left open by a negligent crew, of French gunfire bringing her down (this, naturally, only from a contemporary French source). Yet it has been argued that these solutions are all unlikely: the ship had sailed at the same or similar tonnage in the past without incident, the crew would hardly have opened her up ahead of a battle, and French fire had hardly touched her. Modern experiments and analyses of the wreck (partially raised in 1982) have offered insight, but given no definitive answers. It is probably the case that the ship, after over thirty years at sea and despite her refit, had become unwieldy and unseaworthy. Still, she might have served – were it not for the freak weather conditions, which saw a strong wind fill her sails at precisely the wrong moment. Caught off balance, she was claimed by the sea. The Mary Rose, like her king and master, had seen better days. The sea would prove as unforgiving to the ship as time would to Henry VIII, who would sink further into illness himself and die within two years.

1. Darnley’s Death: Was Mary Queen of Scots guilty or innocent?

The most infamous murder mystery ever investigated in Tudor England wasn’t actually committed in the country – though its victim had Tudor blood, and it was certainly tried there. It all began when the smoke cleared after a spectacular late-night explosion in Edinburgh in 1567. Quickly, the corpse of the nominal king was discovered in the garden, smothered to death. King Henry, known to history as Lord Darnley, was not a popular young man. He'd engaged in a plot the previous year to assassinate his wife’s secretary, David Riccio, and had then turned his back on his fellow plotters, leaving them baying for his blood. His wife, Mary Queen of Scots, had, the following Christmas, pardoned some of them – so desperate was she to achieve politico-religious stability after publicly baptising her son a Catholic. Yet, for all Darnley went un-mourned (save by his parents), it was what happened next that really raised eyebrows. Mary found herself publicly accused, and then viewed with suspicion by her crowned peers. This was too much. She suffered a nervous collapse (throughout her life she would veer between high spirits and deep depressions), and in rode a man lately in her favour and only too eager to take advantage: the 4th earl of Bothwell. He abducted Mary, probably forced himself on her, certainly pressured her, and swiftly wed her by Protestant rites. Afterwards, she would be found calling for a knife with which to kill herself. Her downfall was swift: a rebellion rose with the ostensible aim of separating her from Bothwell. This it did, but the rebels – a Protestant cabal, soon to be led by Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, Moray – were hardly going to let this opportunity pass. Rather than just ridding themselves of the overweening Bothwell, they decided to lock Mary up. She would spent a year in captivity, during which she miscarried twins and was forced to sign a ‘voluntary demission’ of her regal authority. Afterwards, her high spirits returned, and sheescaped to form a formidable army (composed of those whose loyalty she’d won during her successful period of personal rule) but was defeated at Langside. She fled to England, expecting armed support – but found only captivity and a show inquiry, ordered by Queen Elizabeth, into Darnley’s death (which Mary was now openly accused of conspiring in). Everyone wanted to know, then and since: did she do it?

And the answer is no. Following Mary’s fall, Moray and his cronies, hoping to consolidate their positions (Moray had assumed the regency following Mary’s forced abdication), set about ruining her reputation. They hoped to convince the world that she and Bothwell had been lovers before Darnley’s death, and that they’d plotted his murder. Letters were supposedly found which proved this – though unfortunately these infamous ‘Casket Letters’ now exist only in copies of translations. At the English inquiry (held first at York and then Westminster), Moray was allowed to appear but Mary wasn’t. A weak outcome resulted: the fallen queen was found neither innocent nor guilty, and Moray (whom Elizabeth allowed to be counter-investigated for rebellion, despite her having no judicial authority over Scotland) was judged likewise. He was allowed to return north of the border, however, and resume the Scottish regency. Mary would be locked up for the rest of her life. The truth is that Darnley’s real killers were almost certainly to be found among Mary’s rebels and in her new marital bed: the smotherer was Archibald Douglas, working on the orders of James Morton, 4th earl of Morton (who would become a later regent); Bothwell laid the powder in what was an over-the-top assassination by anyone’s measure; and a host of others had foreknowledge. Mary’s folly was in wedding Bothwell. A misstep this was – whether it came about as a result of rape, her then-collapsed mental state, or her attempt to shore up Protestant support – but it is not evidence of her colluding with him in the earlier murder. Mary would always place enormous stock in the sanctity of royalty (even after decades of captivity, she would insist on her canopy of state and balk at accepting Elizabeth’s assassination as the price of her freedom), and she had made Darnley, for all his faults, a king. A conniving murderess engaged in a passionate folie à deux she was not.

Bonus: The Bard’s Lost Work: What is Love’s Labour’s Won?

William Shakespeare has left us with a whole host of interesting mysteries. What was he was up to during his ‘lost years’: that period prior to his arrival in the London theatre world? We don’t know. How many words did he invent? Actually, this isn’t a mystery; despite what outdated OED claims state, recent comparison of his works with digitised non-Shakespearean texts, manuscripts, and letters haven’t been able to find him using any words for the first time… But as well as questions, the Bard has left us thirty-seven plays, 154 sonnets, and two narrative poems. Still, given the massive industry his work has ballooned into since the advent of ‘Bardolatry’, people are hungry for more. They’re so hungry, in fact, that attempts have even been made to fake new discoveries – most infamously William Henry Ireland’s laughter-provoking Vortigern and Rowena (1796). At least one play – Cardenio, which Shakespeare probably collaborated on (collaboration being recognised now as a common method of writing in the period) – is lost. Another play, however, might or might not have existed: Love’s Labour’s Won. Two sources exist naming the play: Francis Meres’ 1598 Palladis Tamia notes, ‘for comedy, witness his [The] Two Gentlemen of Verona,his [The Comedy of] Errors, his Love’s Labour’s Lost, his Love’s Labour’s Won…’. In 1603, Christopher Hunt also mentioned a quarto edition of Love’s Labour’s Won. What is it? One of the myriad lost plays of the period, perhaps with a copy waiting to be discovered in some forgotten archive?

We don’t know. Perhaps it is – perhaps it was a sequel to the surviving Love’s Labour’s Lost (an idea slightly hampered by the relative scarcity of sequels to comedies in this era). Or maybe it is just an alternative title for a play we do have: Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing have each been suggested as being the Love’s Labour’s Won mentioned by Meres and Hunt (none entirely satisfactorily). In truth, we just don’t know. It is tempting to think, however, that an original play, the plot and characters of which are complete unknowns, existed – and might still exist somewhere. Incidentally, if you thought that the question of who actually wrote the works ascribed to the man himself might make this list, I’m sorry to disappoint you. That’s not a mystery. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote them. So there.

If you liked these mysteries, you might like my new murder mystery novel, “Of Judgement Fallen”, set in 1523 and featuring Thomas More in a key role. You can get it in all good bookshops and here: