A Very Short life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

by Kevin Gilvary

Edward de Vere was born on 12 April 1550 at Castle Hedingham in the county of Essex, his family’s ancestral home. His father, John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford, was hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain and attended the coronations of both Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. His mother was Margaret Golding, sister of the famous translator, scholar and poet Arthur Golding. Edward de Vere was eleven when, in 1561, Queen Elizabeth visited Castle Hedingham for four days of masques, feasting and entertainments. When his father died in 1562, Edward left Hedingham to become, like Bertram in All’s Well that Ends Well, a ward of the Crown under the guardianship of William Cecil, the Queen’s private secretary (later Baron Burghley, Lord Treasurer). His mother soon remarried and seems to have passed out of the boy’s life. His sister Mary went to live with her stepfather and the siblings were not reunited for some years.

According to a curriculum in William Cecil’s hand, Edward de Vere’s daily studies included dancing, French, Latin, writing and drawing, cosmography, penmanship, riding, shooting, exercise and prayer.

Hedingham Castle
The Keep at Castle Hedingham

He showed a prodigious talent for scholarship from his early years, and we may ascribe his lifelong love of learning to the influence of two of his early tutors. The first was Sir Thomas Smith, one of England’s most respected Greek and legal scholars and the former Cambridge tutor of Sir William Cecil. It was, no doubt, through Cecil’s influence that Edward de Vere spent some time living in the household of Smith in his early years, during which time he spent about five months at Smith’s alma mater, Queens’ College, Cambridge. Smith was a scholar of widely varied interests – this was reflected in his 400-volume library, some of which is still extant at Cambridge. Another tutor was Laurence Nowell, who was not only an accomplished cartographer but was also England’s premier scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature – it was Nowell who possessed the only known copy of Beowulf.

Metamorphoses 1567
Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (1567)

In 1570 he served in a military campaign in Scotland under the Earl of Sussex and by 1571 was reported as a leading luminary of the Court and, for a time, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. In December 1571 he married Anne Cecil, aged fifteen, daughter of his guardian. This was a dynastic marriage where all the advantage accrued to Cecil who, ennobled as Baron Burghley, had reduced the social gap between himself and the young Earl.

An important influence on Edward de Vere’s early studies was his maternal uncle Arthur Golding, an officer in the Court of Wards under Cecil, who is credited with the translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, published in 1567, a book widely recognised as having a major influence on ‘Shakespeare’. Following on from his matriculation at Cambridge in November 1558, de Vere was awarded an honorary MA by Cambridge during a Royal progress in August 1564, and another degree by Oxford University during a Royal progress in 1566. Edward de Vere then attended Gray’s Inn to study law. One notable feature of the Elizabethan Inns of Court was a tradition of mounting dramatic productions and of hosting the various touring companies of players.

While Oxford was away on a Grand Tour of Europe, he heard that his daughter Elizabeth Vere had been born in July 1575. On his return in early 1576, he appeared to have been convinced that Elizabeth was not his child; consequently he became estranged from Anne for five years, and exiled himself from Court, taking up residence in the Savoy and concerning himself with literary and musical patronage. In 1573, Cardanus Comfort was translated from Latin by Thomas Bedingfield and published at Oxford’s command with a letter and poem by him. In 1576 an anthology, A Paradise of Daintie Devices, including several poems by Oxford, was published. These are juvenile works but already show affinities, in both style and thought, with those of the mature Shakespeare.

Oxford’s Grand Tour took him to Paris, Strasbourg, Venice, Genoa, Florence, Palermo and, on his way back through France, Rousillon – the setting for Love’s Labour’s Lost. In 1575-6 Oxford borrowed money and sold many of his estates in order to travel round Italy, returning to England fluent in Italian and well acquainted with the northern Italian cities. In England he was satirised by Gabriel Harvey as a foppish Italianate poet earl. On his way back his ship was attacked by pirates in the English Channel (cf. Hamlet). Fourteen of ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays have Italian settings, in which he put his detailed knowledge of the country, beyond pure book knowledge, to good use.

Cardanus 1573
‘Cardanus Comforte’ (1573)

The Earle of Oxenforde to the Reader.

“So hee that takes the payne to penne the booke
Reapes not the giftes, of goodlye golden Muse
But those gayne that, who on the worke that looke
And from the soure, the sweete by skill doth chuse.
For hee that beates the bushe the byrde not gets,
But who sittes still, and holdeth fast the nets.”

Final verse from the poem The labouring man by Edward de Vere

Source: Cardanus Comforte (1573)


In May 1577 Oxford invested in Frobisher’s voyage in the ship Edward Bonaventure. Despite its name, the ship’s voyage across the Atlantic in search of the North-West Passage lost money; consequently he was forced to sell three more estates (cf. Hamlet’s words ‘I am but mad north-north-west’ II. i.). In 1578 he invested in Frobisher’s second expedition, which also lost money, forcing further sales.

Euphues the anatomy of wit
‘Euphues’ (1578) by John Lylly

He was mentioned by Gabriel Harvey in an address to Queen Elizabeth in July 1578 as a prolific private poet and one ‘whose countenance shakes spears’. In the same year John Lyly, Oxford’s secretary, published Euphues. The Anatomy of Wit, followed in 1579 by Euphues and his England, dedicated to Oxford. These two books launched the fashion for ‘Euphuism’, a style characterized by high-flown language, satirized in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

In March 1581 Oxford’s mistress, Anne Vavasour, who was one of Queen Elizabeth’s Ladies of the Bedchamber, gave birth to a son. The lovers and their son were sent to the Tower by an infuriated Queen but swiftly released (cf. Measure for Measure). After his release, Oxford was wounded in a street-fight provoked by Thomas Knyvet, a kinsman of Anne Vavasour; affrays continued in the streets of London between the rival gangs of supporters for over a year (cf. Romeo and Juliet).

Euphues and his England
‘Euphues and his England’ (1580) by John Lyly

In December 1581, after five years of acrimonious separation, he was reunited with his long-suffering and devoted wife, and finally accepted Elizabeth Vere as his child. Their only son died one day after his birth. Three more daughters followed, of whom Susan and Bridget survived.

In 1584, Robert Greene’s Gwydonius; the Card of Fancy was dedicated to Oxford. In 1586, when he was thirty-six, he served on the tribunal which condemned Mary, Queen of Scots to execution. In the same year, the Queen awarded Oxford an unconditional pension of £1,000 a year for life (about £500,000 at today’s value). The motive for this uncharacteristic generosity on the part of the Queen remains a mystery – no accounting was required of Oxford. Her successor, King James I, continued to pay the pension. In reply to Sir Robert Cecil’s request that Lord Sheffield’s pension be increased, the King refused, saying, ‘Great Oxford got no more …’ Why Great Oxford? His greatness does not seem to have resided in war or any of the known offices of State. Perhaps a clue can be found in a letter to Burghley, written in 1594, in which Edward de Vere seeks his favour in a matter involving what he describes as ‘in mine office’ and that this office is beholden to the Queen.

In 1589, George Puttenham published The Arte of English Poesie and this contains the most telling recognition of Edward de Vere’s literary standing amongst his contemporaries: ‘And in her Majesties time that now is are sprong up an other crew of Courtly makers Noble men and Gentlemen of her Majesties owne servantes, who have written excellently well as it would appeare if their doings could be found out and made publicke with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman Edward Earle of Oxford.’

“And arte made tongue-tied by authoritie”

Sonnet 66


Brooke House Hollar 1642
King’s Place, Hackey (later Brooke House). Courtesy of British History Online.

In 1588 his wife Anne died and in extant letters written at this time, it is reported that Burghley was so incapacitated by grief over the death of his favourite daughter that he is incapable of conducting any Privy Council business. Three years later, in 1591, Oxford married another of the Queen’s Maids of Honour, Elizabeth Trentham, with whom, the books of nobility aver, he became the father of a male heir; Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford. Although there is evidence of his continued involvement in Court affairs, from the date of this marriage Oxford’s life at his new home at King’s Place in Hackney is perhaps the most obscure of his entire life.

In 1594, his financed ship the Edward Bonaventure was wrecked in Bermuda (cf. The Tempest). In January 1595, his daughter Elizabeth Vere married William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, another literary earl who maintained his own company of players – many scholars believe that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for these festivities which were attended by the whole royal Court.

On 7 September 1598, Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia was registered for publication, placing Oxford at the top of a list of brilliant playwrights as ‘best for comedy’. This is a vital document in Shakespearean history because it includes the first mention of ‘Shakespeare’ as a playwright, attributing twelve plays to him. Until then Shakespeare’s reputation had rested on the two narrative poems only.

Oxford suffered all his life from financial difficulties, many of which can be traced to the fact that Queen Elizabeth handed out the bulk of his estate to her favourite courtier the Earl of Leicester during Oxford’s minority as a royal ward (estates which Oxford found almost impossible to reclaim), and the ruinous debt she placed upon him over his marriage to Anne Cecil. It is, however, notable that his new brother-in-law, the wealthy Staffordshire landowner and Knight of the Shire Francis Trentham, eased the problem by buying de Vere estates and holding them in trust for his descendants.

On the Queen’s death in 1603 Oxford wrote eloquently to Sir Robert Cecil, son and heir of Lord Burghley, of his ‘great grief’. He wrote, ‘In this common shipwreck, mine is above all the rest, who least regarded, though often comforted, she hath left to try my fortune among the alterations of time and chance’.

Oxford died in Hackney in 1604, cause unknown. Parish records state that he was buried in Hackney Church on 6 July, but a family history by his first cousin Percival Golding, states ‘Edward de Veer … a man in mind and body absolutely accomplished with honorable endowments … lieth buried at Westminster’. No record of such a burial can now be traced in Westminster Abbey, where there is a Vere family tomb.

The Aftermath of Oxford’s life and death

In 1622 Henry Peacham published, in The Compleat Gentleman, a list of poets who made Elizabeth’s reign a ‘golden age’. Unaccountably, he omitted Shakespeare but placed the Earl of Oxford in first place in his list – perhaps he knew them to be the same person. This is unlike Meres who included them both – maybe one reason was because he didn’t know Oxford and Shakespeare were the same person.

During the winter season 1604-05, six of Shakespeare’s plays were presented at Court by command of King James I. This has an air of commemoration. In 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets were published in a pirated edition. The famous dedication describes the author as ‘our ever-living’, a phrase invariably used only of the dead.

Shakespeare's Sonnets 1609
‘Shake-speares Sonnets’ (1609)

We do not know who instigated publication of the First Folio edition of the Shakespeare plays in 1623, but there is no mention of any executor or relative of Shakspere of Stratford in connection with it. However, of the two brothers who financed it and to whom it was dedicated, one – Philip Earl of Montgomery – was the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, while the other – William Earl of Pembroke – had once been a suitor for her sister Bridget. Pembroke was Lord Chamberlain, the supreme authority in the world of theatre, and thus in a position to decide which plays were to be published and which suppressed. We also know that Ben Jonson, who wrote much of the introductory material, was an intimate associate of the de Vere family after Oxford’s death. The First Folio was therefore very much a family affair, but the family was not the one in Stratford-on-Avon.

The Compleat Gentleman 1622
‘The Compleat Gentleman’ (1622) by Henry Peacham