Oxford Biography

A short life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

He was born on 12 April 1550 at Castle Hedingham, his family’s ancestral home. His father, John de Vere, 16th Earl, was Lord Great Chamberlain and attended the coronations of both Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. His mother was Margaret Golding. Edward was 11 when, in 1561, Queen Elizabeth visited Hedingham for four days of masques, feasting and entertainments. When his father died in 1562, young Oxford left 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 Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer). His mother married Charles Tyrrell 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 Cecil’s own hand, Edward de Vere’s daily studies included dancing, French, Latin, writing and drawing, cosmography, penmanship, riding, shooting, exercise and prayer. Edward de Vere 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 who was, perhaps, England’s most respected Greek scholar 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. De Vere’s other 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.

Another 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, Edward 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.

In 1570 he served in a military campaign in Scotland under the Earl of Sussex. By 1571, he 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 15, 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.

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.

Already, in 1573, Cardanus Comfort (the Consolations of Boethius) had been translated from Latin by Thomas Bedingfield and dedicated to Oxford; and published with a preface written 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 had taken in Paris, Strasbourg, Venice, Genoa, Florence, Palermo and, on his way back through France, Rousillon – the setting for Love’s Labour’s Lost. Oxford spent the best part of a year travelling in Italy in 1576, and becoming involved with moneylenders. He came back to England fluent in Italian and well acquainted with the northern Italian cities, to be satirised by Gabriel Harvey as ‘The Italian 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.

1573 saw the birth of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Although history has not bequeathed to us any evidence of a direct relationship between the two men, in the relatively small world of the royal Court, they must have been acquainted with each other. The poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) were dedicated to Southampton. These were the first works to be published under the name ‘Shakespeare’ and for the next five years the records show the byline ‘Shakespeare’ to have been associated exclusively with these two poems. Plays under the name ‘Shakespeare’ did not appear in print until 1598, the year that Lord Burghley died.

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 estates (cf. Hamlet’s words ‘I am but mad north-north-west’ II.1.). In 1578 he invested in Frobisher’s second expedition, which also lost money, forcing further sales of estates.

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).

In December 1581 he resumed living with his long-suffering and devoted wife, and accepted Elizabeth Vere as his child. Tragically, 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 him, identifying him as a ‘pre-eminent writer’. In 1586, when he was 36, 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 . . .’, leaving us to wonder 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.’

In 1588 his wife Anne, daughter of Lord Burghley, died and in extant letters written at this time, it is reported that Burghley is 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 he finally 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 Edward de Vere’s life at his new home at King’s Place in Hackney is perhaps the most obscure of his entire life.

In 1594, his ship the Edward Bonaventure was wrecked in Bermuda (cf. The Tempest). In January 1595, 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 September 7 1598, Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia was registered for publication, naming Oxford as the ‘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, much 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, took over the management of Edward de Vere’s near-bankrupt estate from 1591 and gradually nursed it back to health so that, when Oxford died, all of his massive debts had been cleared.

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 July 6, 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

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 the 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.

In 1622 Henry Peacham published, in The Compleat Gentelman, 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.

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.