Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (12 April 1550 – 24 June 1604) was an Elizabethan courtier, playwright, poet, sportsman, patron of numerous writers, and sponsor of at least two acting companies, Oxford's Men and Oxford's Boys, and a company of musicians. He was born at Castle Hedingham to the 16th Earl of Oxford and the former Margery Golding.
Oxford is most famous today as the strongest candidate proposed (next to William Shakespeare of Stratford) for the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, a claim that most historians and literary scholars reject but which is supported by a number of researchers and theatre practitioners. For further information on this topic, see Oxfordian theory.
After his father died unexpectedly on 3 August 1562, the twelve-year-old Lord Bulbeck (as he had been styled from birth) became the 17th Earl of Oxford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England. At some point during the next fourteen months his mother remarried a Gentleman Pensioner and former horse-master for the Dudley family named Charles Tyrell. Control of the young Lord Oxford's ancestral lands was granted to the Earl of Leicester by Queen Elizabeth I. While still a minor, Oxford was made a royal ward and was placed in the household of Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), the Lord High Treasurer, a member of Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council, and her closest and most trusted advisor. In view of Oxford's theatrical activities, it is interesting to note that Lord Burghley is regarded by most Elizabethan scholars as the prototype for the character of Polonius in Hamlet. Under Burghley's stewardship, Oxford was trained in French, Latin, writing and drawing, cosmography, music and dance, horsemanship, combat, falconry, and hunting.
His known tutors included the classical scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Smith, and Laurence Nowell, one of the founding fathers of Anglo-Saxon studies. Nowell was hired to tutor Oxford in 1563, the same year that Nowell signed his name on the only known copy of the Beowulf manuscript (also known as the "Nowell Codex"). There has been speculation, not without reason, that Oxford was taught Latin by his maternal uncle, Arthur Golding, and may have even assisted him in the first English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
In 1564, while both were living at Burghley House, Golding wrote of his young nephew in the dedicatory epistle to Th’ Abridgement of the Histories of Trogus Pompeius, collected and written in the Latin tongue by the famous historiographer Justin:
"It is not unknown to others, and I have had experience thereof myself, how earnest a desire Your Honor hath naturally graffed in you to read, peruse, and communicate with others, as well as the histories of ancient times and things done long ago, as also the present estate of things in our days, and that not without a certain pregnancy of wit and ripeness of understanding." (STC 24290)
"For if in the opinion of all men, there can be found no one more fitte, for patronage and defence of learning, then the skilfull: for that he is both wyse and able to iudge and discerne truly thereof. I vnderstanding righte well that your honor hathe continually, euen from your tender yeares, bestowed your time and trauayle towards the attayning of the same, as also the vniuersitie of Cambridge hath acknowledged in graunting and giuing vnto you such commendation and prayse thereof, as verily by righte was due vnto your excellent vertue and rare learning. Wherin verily Cambridge the mother of learning, and learned men, hath openly confessed: and in this hir confessing made knowen vnto al men, that your honor being learned and able to iudge as a safe harbor and defence of learning, and therefore one most fitte to whose honorable patronage I might safely commit this my poore and simple labours." (STC 12476)
On 23 July 1567, the seventeen-year-old Oxford killed an unarmed under-cook by the name of Thomas Brincknell while practicing fencing with Edward Baynam, a merchant tailor, in the backyard of Cecil's house in the Strand. In the ensuing trial it was alleged the victim had run upon the point of Oxford's sword and was thereby condemned as a suicide. (Interestingly, the English chronicler and Shakespeare source Raphael Holinshed was one of the jurors at this trial.)
In an arranged wedding on 19 December 1571, Oxford married Lord Burghley's fifteen-year-old daughter, Anne Cecil — a surprising choice since Oxford was of the oldest nobility in the kingdom whereas Anne was not originally of noble birth, her father having only been raised to the peerage that year by Queen Elizabeth to enable the marriage of social inequals. At the age of twenty-one, Oxford regained control of some of his ancestral lands. His marriage produced five children, including three daughters who survived infancy. He toured France, Germany and Italy in 1575, and was thought to be of Roman Catholic sympathies, as were many of the old nobility.
On his return across the English Channel, Oxford's ship was hijacked by pirates, who stripped him naked, apparently with the intention of murdering him, until they were made aware of his noble status, upon which he was allowed to go free, albeit without most of his possessions. Further controversy ensued after he found that his wife had given birth to a daughter during his journey, and separated from her on grounds of adultery, complaining that she had become "the fable of the world". Francis Osborne (1593–1659) included a bed-trick anecdote about Oxford in his Historical Memoires on the Reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James (1658). According to Osborne (who had been a servant to the Herberts), the Earl of Montgomery was struck in the face by a Scottish courtier named Ramsey at a horse race at Croydon. Montgomery, who did not strike back, "was left nothing to testifie his Manhood but a Beard and Children, by that Daughter of the last great Earl of Oxford, whose Lady was brought to his Bed under the notion of his Mistress, and from such a vertuous deceit she [that is, Montgomery's wife] is said to proceed."
In 1580, Oxford accused several of his Catholic friends of treason, and denounced them to the Queen, asking mercy for his own Catholicism, which he repudiated. These same friends in turn denounced Oxford, accusing him of a laundry list of crimes, including plotting to murder a host of courtiers, such as Sir Philip Sidney and the Earl of Leicester. The charges were not taken seriously, although Oxford never completely recovered the Queen's favour and his reputation was thereafter tarnished.
He fathered an illegitimate child by Anne Vavasour, Sir Edward Vere, in 1581, and was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. The illicit congress with Vavasour led to a prolonged quarrel with Sir Thomas Knyvett, her uncle, resulting in three deaths and several other injuries. Oxford himself was seriously wounded in one of the duels, possibly leading to the "lameness" mentioned later in several of his letters. The imbroglio was put to an end when the Queen threatened to jail all those involved. By Christmas of 1581, Oxford had reconciled with Anne Cecil and once again cohabited with her.
In 1585, Lord Oxford was given a military command in the Netherlands, and served during the Battle of the Spanish Armada in 1588. His first wife Anne Cecil died in 1588 at the age of 32. In 1591, Oxford married Elizabeth Trentham, one of the Queen's Maids of Honour. This marriage produced his heir, Henry, Lord Vere, later the 18th Earl of Oxford. The Earl's three daughters all married into the peerage: Elizabeth married the Earl of Derby; Bridget married the Earl of Berkshire; Susan married the Earl of Montgomery, one of the “INCOMPARABLE PAIRE OF BRETHREN” to whom William Shakespeare's First Folio would be dedicated.
Mismanagement of Oxford's finances reduced him to penury, and in 1586 he was granted an annual pension of £1,000 by the Queen, which continued to be paid by her successor, King James I. It has been suggested that the annuity may also have been granted for his services in maintaining a group of writers and a company of actors (from 1580), and that the obscurity of his later life is to be explained by his immersion in literary and dramatic pursuits. He was indeed a notable patron of writers including Edmund Spenser, as well as Arthur Golding, Robert Greene, Thomas Churchyard, Thomas Watson and John Lyly (author of the novel Euphues), and Anthony Munday, both whom he employed as secretaries for many years. Interestingly, orthodox scholars have named both Lyly and Munday as Shakespearean sources.
In 1603, Oxford was granted his decades-long suit for the Stewardship of Waltham Forest and Havering-atte-Bower, but enjoyed the privilege for less than a year. He died in 1604 of unknown causes at King's Hold, Hackney Wick, Middlesex, England, and was apparently buried at Hackney, although his cousin, Percival Golding (son of Arthur Golding), reported a few years later that he was buried at Westminster Abbey.
"So as I know very many notable gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably and suppressed it agayne, or els sufred it to be publisht without their own names to it, as it were a discredit for a gentleman, to seeme learned, and to show himselfe amorous of any good Art."
Further along in the book, the author continued:
"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 servauntes, 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” (STC 20519).
Only a small corpus of Oxford’s poems and songs are extant under his own name, the dates of which (and, in some cases, the authorship) are uncertain; most of these are signed "Earle of Oxenforde" or "E.O.". During his lifetime, Oxford was lauded by other English poets, though mostly in regard to his patronage (for example, see one of the epistolary sonnets to Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene). Oxford’s existing letters are focused mainly on business affairs concerning such matters as the Cornish tin monopoly and his ongoing desire for several royal monopolies and stewardships. Oxford maintained both adult and children's theatre companies, and a letter from the Privy Council in March 1602 shows his active involvement on behalf of a "third" acting company who liked to play at "the Bores head":
"beinge joyned by agreement togeather in on Companie (to whom, upon noteice of her Maiesties pleasure at the suit of the Earl of Oxford, tolleracion hath ben thought meete to be graunted, notwithstandinge the restraint of our said former Orders), doe no tye them selfs to one certaine place and howse, but do chainge their place at there owne disposition, which is as disorderly and offensive as the former offence of many howses, and as the other Companies that are allowed . . . be appointed there certine howses and one and no more to each Company. Soe we do straighly require that this third Companie be likewise to one place and because we are informed the house called the Bores head is the place they have especially used and doe best like of, we doe pray and require yow that the said howse . . . may be assigned to them, and that they be very straightlie Charged to use and exercise there plays in no other but that howse, as they looke to have that tolleracion continued and avoid farther displeasure."
Two of Oxford’s “literary” letters were published in 1571 (1572 (New style)) and 1573. The first of these was written in Latin as a dedicatory epistle to Bartholomew Clerke's Latin translation of Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Courtier), while the second, written in English with accompanying verses, was an epistle to Thomas Bedingfield's English translation of Cardanus' Comfort (from the Latin of De consolatione libri tres by the Italian mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano). The latter book, published at Oxford’s command, has sometimes been cited by scholars as “Hamlet’s book” (possibly the same book where Hamlet found “words, words, words”) due to several close verbal parallels between it and Shakespeare’s play, particularly a passage on the unsavoriness of old men’s company, to which Hamlet seems to refer in his satirical banter with Polonius (re: plum-tree gum, plentiful lack of wit, most weak hams, etc), as well a passage with remarkable similarities to Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy.
The Shakespeare authorship question is the debate, dating back to the 18th century, about whether the works attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon were actually written by another writer, or a group of writers. In 1920, J. Thomas Looney advanced the hypothesis that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the actual author of Shakespeare's plays due to: Oxford's advanced education; knowledge of aristocratic life, the military and the law; background in the theatre; the praise accorded Oxford's plays and poems; and abundant similarities between Oxford's life and the plays. According to the hypothesis, Oxford had no choice but to publish under a pseudonym, since it would have been considered disgraceful for an aristocrat to be writing for the public theatre, a claim considered by Renaissance scholar Steven W. May, to be incongruous with Elizabethan print histories, but which has been defended by both orthodox scholars ("Stratfordians", in the jargon of Oxfordians) and anti-Stratfordians (those who doubt the standard theory of Shakespeare authorship).
Oxfordian researcher Diana Price states, "Many members on the top rungs of the Tudor aristocracy had outstanding reputations as poets. But none of them published their creative work. The earl of Surrey's attributed poems were published in miscellanies after his death. None of Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Edward Dyer, and Sir Fulke Greville, all of whom also earned reputations as writers, published his work either. Like those of their social betters, the relatively few poems that appeared in print turned up in miscellanies".
Notable Oxfordians include Sigmund Freud, diplomat and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Paul Nitze, Supreme Court Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, columnist Joseph Sobran, former British judge Christmas Humphreys, biographer and historian David McCullough, as well as actors Orson Welles, Sir John Gielgud, Michael York, Jeremy Irons, Mark Rylance (former Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre) and Sir Derek Jacobi, who supports the "group theory" with Oxford as the lead writer.
Debate over the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship remains contentious. Evidentiary gaps within, and problems with, the Oxfordian hypothesis have prevented many academics from considering its viability. For example, Stratfordians argue that Oxford's 1604 death prevents him from witnessing certain events (for instance the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the wreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda in 1609) thought to be alluded to in Shakespearean dramas such as Macbeth and The Tempest, respectively. Contemporary poetic tributes to Shakespeare from writers such as Ben Jonson and Leonard Digges (who refer to Shakespeare as "Sweet swan of Avon!" and mention his "Stratford Moniment" in the First Folio), and William Basse (who explicitly mentions Shakespeare dying in 1616), seem to provide some of the clearest evidence for the Stratford Shakespeare's status as a reputed poet.
Oxfordians respond that modern research shows that not one of Shakespeare's plays has a proven source published after 1604. Furthermore, Oxfordian biographers William Farina and Mark Anderson have provided research demonstrating that the regular publication of Shakespeare's plays stopped in 1604 and have cited several examples that imply that Shakespeare (the playwright) was deceased prior to 1609, when SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS were published with the reference "by our ever-living poet".
Other candidates who have been put forward as the actual author of the Shakespeare works include Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Oxford's son-in-law, the Earl of Derby. All of the primary candidates (except Shakespeare of Stratford) were known to each other and traveled in the same circles, and are also mentioned as members of a "group" that may have been responsible for the Shakespearean canon.
All candidates and theories are predominantly rejected by the academic establishment, although interest by academics and theatre practitioners continues to increase. Further insights and debating points from the Stratfordian perspective may be viewed at The Shakespeare Authorship website and from the Oxfordian perspective at The Shakespeare Fellowship website.
Were I a king I might command content;
Were I obscure unknown should be my cares,
And were I dead no thoughts should me torment,
Nor words, nor wrongs, nor love, nor hate, nor fears
A doubtful choice for me of three things one to crave,
A kingdom or a cottage or a grave.
Love Thy Choice
Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, my heart ?
Who taught thy tongue the woeful words of plaint ?
Who filled your eyes with tears of bitter smart ?
Who gave thee grief and made thy joys to faint ?
Who first did paint with colours pale thy face ?
Who first did break thy sleeps of quiet rest ?
Above the rest in court who gave thee grace ?
Who made thee strive in honour to be best ?
In constant truth to bide so firm and sure,
To scorn the world regarding but thy friends ?
With patient mind each passion to endure,
In one desire to settle to the end ?
Love then thy choice wherein such choice thou bind,
As nought but death may ever change thy mind.
If women could be fair and yet not fond,
Or that their love were firm not fickle, still,
I would not marvel that they make men bond,
By service long to purchase their good will;
But when I see how frail those creatures are,
I muse that men forget themselves so far.
To mark the choice they make, and how they change,
How oft from Phoebus do they flee to Pan,
Unsettled still like haggards wild they range,
These gentle birds that fly from man to man;
Who would not scorn and shake them from the fist
And let them fly fair fools which way they list.
Yet for disport we fawn and flatter both,
To pass the time when nothing else can please,
And train them to our lure with subtle oath,
Till, weary of their wiles, ourselves we ease;
And then we say when we their fancy try,
To play with fools, O what a fool was I.
Nelson, Alan H. Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Liverpool English Texts and Studies 40. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003.
Ward, B.M. The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, 1550-1604: From Contemporary Documents. London: John Murray, 1928.