Among the most important occult societies in Elizabethan England, the School of Night almost certainly did not go by that name, if the group had a name at all; the phrase comes from Shakespeare, who lampooned the group in his play Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1590). A circle of freethinkers, scholars, and occultists centered on the famous adventurer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh and his magical instructor, Thomas Harriot, the School’s membership included such notables as Henry, Earl of Northumberland, known as the “Wizard Earl” to his contemporaries for his involvement in alchemy and magic; Sir George Carey, later raised to the peerage as Lord Hounsdon; the playwright Christopher Marlowe; the poets George Chapman, Matthew Roydon, and William Warner; and possibly Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene and arguably the most important poet of the age.
Members of the School were widely thought to be atheists. A 1592 pamphlet speaks of
Sir Walter Rawley’s school of Atheisme by the way, and the Conjuror that is Master thereof, and of the diligence used to get young gentlemen of this school, wherein both Moyses and our Saviour, the olde and Newe Testamentes are jested at, and the scollers taught, among other things, to spell God backwards. (Bradbrook 1965, p. 12)
Certainly the School’s members studied occult sciences – Raleigh himself was a capable alchemist – and had skeptical ideas about established religion. See Alchemy; Magic.
The School probably came into being around 1585, when Raleigh returned from his adventures in Virginia, and it died on the executioner’s block with Raleigh himself in 1618. Nearly all the evidence concerning it comes from the years from 1593 to 1595. In the former year Raleigh was exiled from court and Marlowe was murdered under mysterious circumstances in Deptford, shortly after being brought before the Court of Star Chamber in London to answer charges of blasphemy and atheism. Both these events focused public attention on rumors already in circulation about Raleigh’s circle, and gave Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex – a rising star at Elizabeth’s court – a chance to strike at his hated rival Raleigh. Essex had his own playwright-poet, a man who wrote under the name of William Shakespeare (and may or may not have been the actor of that name), and Shakespeare and the School of Night sniped at one another in their writings – Shakespeare targeting Chapman’s poem The Shadow of Night and the School generally in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Chapman retorting with a revision of The Shadow of Night and the later poem Ovid’s Banquet of Sense, and other members of the School writing Willoughbie his Avisa as a further counterblast to Love’s Labour’s Lost. By 1596 the literary war wound up, and Essex turned his attention more and more toward the political intrigues that led to his failed coup d’etat and execution in 1601.
Despite the quarrel between the School of Night and the author of the Shakespeare plays and poems, several members of the School, notably Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe, are among the people suspected of hiding behind the mask of “William Shakespeare.” See Shakespeare controversies.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006