In the movie Anonymous, a rebellious London crowd pours out of The Globe theater, incensed by the suggestive performance of a Shakespeare play, and is cut down by troops of soldiers pre-positioned in order to slaughter them by the evil Robert Cecil. The director of the movie explains that he intentionally changed the play from Richard II to Richard III in order to highlight that the Earl of Essex’ enemy was Cecil, the Queen’s Principal Secretary, rather than the Queen per se. Both Cecil and Richard III were hunchbacked.
In fact, the Earl of Essex himself did not precisely know what he intended to accomplish by his rebellion. He was furious at having lost certain royal monopolies once gifted to him by the Queen, in respect of his acts of insubordination while he commanded the Queen’s troops in Ireland. His overbearing pride was further wounded to think that the world was watching his loss of prestige. After his arrest he would claim that he had planned to remove Elizabeth’s evil counselors, not the Queen herself. But the play his allies had commanded was not Richard III. London theater goers were not treated to an evil hunchback on the stage but Richard II, a weak monarch with poor judgment in the selection of counselors who was forcibly deposed by nobleman who felt the monarch was not competent to rule.
It might be thought that it was an ally of Essex who commanded the play, and not Essex himself, and therefore he may not have known what had been done in his name. Yet it is a matter of historical record that the play was publicly acted on more than 40 occasions over an extended period. The Earl’s own coterie regularly attended the performances. He could only have known.
At no point, during any of the 40 or so performances, or during the Earl of Essex’s machinations, did the army massacre a single person, commoner or gentleman. If the army had been commanded to do so, London would have risen against the Queen. Not because it supported the Earl of Essex but because the city possessed very powerful rights and was quite prepared to defend them even against the monarch. The genius of Cecil was that he managed the defeat of the rebellion without firing a single shot (not the kind of thing to grip a movie audience).
In part because of the news that Richard II was being played in London for weeks, the Queen and her counsel were working behind the scenes to assure the loyalty of the civil magistrates of London. The people never rose up in small group or large. When the moment came that Essex would act, the London watch and strategically placed military units cordoned off the city. The few citizens that did not immediately obey the order to clear the streets were arrested. Essex found himself eerily alone.
Realizing that he had failed to gather the least support, and that he would soon be arrested, the Earl returned to Essex House and he and his close supporters resolved to resist. No preparations had been made for such a step, however, and he lacked gunpowder and other essential supplies. Soon all saw the wisdom of surrender. Still, however briefly and foolishly, he had taken up arms in this fashion, against his Queen, and, in light of the fact, was guilty of treason.
- Historical inaccuracies in the film Anonymous: #1: Sir William Cecil did not blackmail Edward de Vere to marry his daughter.