Seventeenth Earl of Oxford
Elizabethan Courtier, Poet and Playwright
1550 – 1604
At the time that Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England in 1558, the Earldom of Oxford was the longest and most illustrious line of nobles in the country, its direct ancestor, Aubrey de Vere, having held land under Edward the Confessor, and later marrying into the family of William the Conqueror. The new Queen appointed John de Vere, the incumbent 16th Earl, her Lord Great Chamberlain, an office that had been held by the Oxford Earls for hundreds of years.
The Earl’s only son Edward de Vere had been born at Hedingham Castle, the Oxford family seat in the center of Essex, on April 12, 1550; a sister Mary was born four years later. Their mother Margaret was the sister of Arthur Golding, a scholar and translator who was close to the family, and was probably Edward’s earliest tutor. At the age of six Edward was placed in the nearby household of Sir Thomas Smith, a scholar and author who became his tutor for the next several years. In November, 1558 Edward matriculated at St. Johns College, Cambridge. From at least 1556, Edward’s father, the 16th Earl, sponsored his own company of actors who toured throughout the region, and also performed for the family and their guests at Hedingham Castle, including Queen Elizabeth when she made a personal visit in 1561.
In August, 1562, John de Vere, the 16th Earl, suddenly died, and the twelve-year-old Edward became the 17th Earl of Oxford. According to the law of the time, all noblemen under the age of 21 became wards of the Crown, and their education and upbringing became the responsibility of the Royal Court of Wards. Edward was required to enter the London household of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Master of the Court of Wards, a man whose influence and authority as guardian, mentor, financial trustee, father-in-law, and reproving critic overshadowed his life for the next four decades.
From his earliest years de Vere displayed the attributes of a prodigy. In 1563, five years after he entered university, his tutor, the antiquarian Laurence Nowell, declared that “my work for the Earl of Oxford cannot be much longer required.” He was awarded a degree from Cambridge in 1564 and a Master of Arts degree from Oxford in 1566. As a Royal Ward, the teen-aged de Vere entered the life and activities of the Court, and in time, reputedly because of his good looks, dancing and musical ability, and courtly graces, became a favorite of the Queen. By this time he had already begun his life-long practice of sponsoring works of literature, and over the next four decades more than thirty volumes of poetry or prose, both originals and translations, were dedicated to him, some of which bore his own introductory essays or poems. In 1567 de Vere was admitted to Gray’s Inn, one of the three Elizabethan law schools.
In the Spring of 1570 de Vere served in the Queen’s military campaign in Scotland under the Earl of Sussex. When the he attained his majority in 1571, and took his seat in the House of Lords, a marriage was arranged between de Vere and Lord Burghley’s fifteen-year-old daughter Anne Cecil. During the early 1570s several of Oxford’s poems were published, notably in A Paradyse of Dainty Devices (1576), and in the next two decades about twenty separate poems that can be attributed to him appeared in print. Another dozen have been found in manuscript; about half of which did not bear his name. He also earned a reputation for his horsemanship and skill at jousting, competing in, and winning, three of Elizabeth’s tournaments in the 1570s and 1580s.
In early 1574 de Vere set out on an extended European tour that took him into France, Germany, Italy (including Sicily), and possibly Greece. During this tour of 15 months he is known to have visited Paris, Roussillon, Strasburg, Lyon, Padua, Venice, Genoa, Verona, Florence, Siena, Rome, and Palermo. While in Italy he received word that his wife had given birth to a daughter, later christened Elizabeth. On his trip home his ship was attacked in the Channel and he was captured by Dutch pirates, but released unharmed. On the basis of information that reached him while he was abroad, de Vere became convinced that the infant Elizabeth was not his child. He refused to return to Anne’s household, and for more than five years remained estranged from her and her family.
Throughout his life de Vere maintained friendships with literary men, and at one time or another employed such writers as Thomas Churchyard, John Lyly, and Anthony Munday. Lyly, the author of two of the earliest English novels, Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit (1578)and Euphues and his England (1579), dedicated the latter to de Vere and acted as his personal secretary. De Vere also sponsored companies of both adult and boy actors, employing Lyly as their manager, and in the early 1580s held a lease on the indoor Blackfriars Theater.
Although raised as a Protestant, de Vere was rumored to have Catholic sympathies, and in 1580 admitted to the Queen close associations with a group of prominent Catholics. He revealed a plot among them to overthrow her and form a government friendly to the Catholic King Philip of Spain. Although the Queen forgave de Vere this transgression, the resulting uproar led to the arrest of several of the aristocratic conspirators. Those charged then accused Oxford of similar crimes, adding accusations of lechery, drunkenness, and homosexuality. De Vere, though also briefly imprisoned, was not charged with any crime.
In March of 1581, a Gentlewoman of the Queen’s Bedchamber, Anne Vavasour, gave birth to a son fathered by Edward de Vere. A disapproving Queen jailed both parents briefly, and de Vere was absent from Court for the next two years. The child, Edward Vere, was allowed little or no contact with his father, but eventually distinguished himself as a soldier and scholar, and was knighted by James I. During 1582 several street fights took place between Vavasour’s relatives and de Vere’s men, in one of which de Vere himself was involved, sustaining a severe leg wound that apparently caused him to limp thereafter.
From his teen age, de Vere was known as an elegant dresser and a lavish spender. There is evidence that the Queen, through her agents, systematically mulcted him of much of his property, although his own expensive life style contributed as well to the loss of his considerable fortune, and his reduction to relative penury. In a strange reversal of behavior, the Queen, in 1586, made an unusual grant to him of £1000 per year for life, requiring no services or accounting from him of any kind.
There is evidence that at the time of the Spanish Armada de Vere outfitted what may have been his own ship, and may have commanded it during the battle. In 1588 de Vere’s wife Anne died, leaving him with three daughters who were then taken into the household of their grandfather William Cecil. In 1591 de Vere married the wealthy Elizabeth Trentham, one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor. Two years later she gave birth to de Vere’s only legitimate son Henry, and the family moved to the suburb of Hackney.
In A Discourse of English Poetry (1586) the Earl of Oxford was praised as the “most excellent” of poets at Court, and the author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589) asserted that he would be known as the best of the courtly poets “if their doings could be found out.” In 1598, in a collection of comments on literature – Palladis Tamia – Francis Meres included him in a list of the best comic playwrights. His life-long association with the theater, with players, and with playwrights is unquestionable. However, no play by de Vere has survived, nor is there any record of his name being associated with any play. In 1595 his daughter Elizabeth married William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby who at the time was said to be writing plays, and late in 1604, another daughter, Susan, married Philip Herbert, Lord Montgomery, one of the dedicatees of Shakespeare’s First Folio.
The 17th Earl of Oxford died in June, 1604 and was buried in the Church of St. Augustine, Hackney. His life and achievements remained obscure until 1920, when John Thomas Looney, an English schoolmaster, revealed his authorship of the Shakespeare canon in “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
J. T. Looney: “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Cecil Palmer, 1920
B. M Ward: The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, 1550-1604, from Contemporary Documents, John Murray, 1928
Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn: This Star of England, Coward-McCann, 1952
Charlton Ogburn Jr.: The Mysterious William Shakespeare, EPM Publications, 1984; 2nd ed. 1992