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The only reliable contemporary documents which shed light on what Oxford actually did in response to the Armada reveal that he refused the only military post offered to him, the governorship of Harwich, which, as a port that could accommodate large ships, was a place of great potential danger as a prospective landing-site for the Armada. The governorship of Harwich, moreover, was a hereditary obligation of the earl of Oxford, as the principal lord of the county of Essex: thus Oxford's father, the sixteenth earl, had accepted the governorship of Harwich at a time of crisis, as had other earls of Oxford before him.
All scholars owe an immense debt to Irwin Matus, who was the first to set out the following documents in their complete form and full significance, in his recent book, Shakespeare, In Fact (New York: Continuum, 1994), pp. 243-6.
On 28 July 1588 Leicester at Tilbury wrote to Walsingham in London [CSPD 1581-90, p. 515 (PRO SP12/213/55)]:
My Lord of Oxford ... returned again yesterday by me, with Captain Huntley as his company. It seemes only his voyage was to have gone to my Lord Admiral; and at his return thither he went yesternight for his armour and furniture. If he come, I would know from you what I should do. I trust he be free to go to the enemy, for he seems most willing to hazard his life in this quarrel.
[Has heard that the Spanish Fleet is off Boulogne and in sight; Out of the new supply of 5,000 he intends to send 500 of the Essex men to Harwich. Thinks the Londoners will be of little service; he knows what burghers are well enough.]
From this letter it is evident that Oxford had only now taken steps to obtain his armor.
On 1 August Leicester wrote again to Walsingham [CSPD 1581-90, p. 520 (PRO SP12/214/1)]:
I did, as Her Majesty liked well of, deliver to my Lord of Oxford her gracious consent of his willingness to serve her; and for that he was content to serve her among the foremost as he seemed. She was well pleased that he should have the government of Harwich, and all those that are apointed to attend that place - which should be two thousand men - a place of great trust and of great danger. My Lord seemed at the first to like well of it. Afterward he came to me and told me he thought the place of no service nor credit; and therefore he would to the Court and understand Her Majesty's further pleasure; to which I would not be against. But I must desire you - as I know Her Majesty will also make him know - that it was good grace to appoint that place to him, having no more experience than he hath; and then to use the matter as you shall think good. For my own part being gladder to be rid of him than to have him, but only to have him contented; which now I find will be harder than I took it. And he denieth all his former offers he made to me rather than not to be seen to be employed at this time.
Leicester's papers from this time include a chart of the Thames estuary, with Harwich the most northerly point shown [CSPD 1581-90, p. 515 (PRO SP12/213/57)]. Clearly, Harwich was deemed important by Leicester.
Leicester finished off his letter with a stinging postscript:
I am glad I am rid of my Lord Oxford, seeing he refuseth this, and I prey you let me not be pressed any more for him, what suit soever he make.
Speaking for myself, I am prepared to believe that Oxford's motive was pique rather than cowardice or subversion; but none of these possible motives speaks well for him.
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