The Earl of Oxford
, from the 1914 publication English Travellers of the Renaissance
by Clare Howard
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (April 12, 1550 – June 24, 1604) was an Elizabethan courtier and poet. He was born at Castle Hedingham to John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford and Margery Golding.
De Vere is most famous today as the alleged author of the works of William Shakespeare, a claim that most historians and literary scholars reject but which is supported by a vocal minority.
De Vere's father died in 1562, and the twelve-year-old de Vere became Earl of Oxford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England. As a minor, Oxford was made a royal ward and was placed in the household of Lord Burghley, the Lord High Treasurer, a member of Queen Elizabeth I's Privy Council, and her closest and most trusted advisor. There, de Vere was trained in such aristocratic pursuits as horse riding, combat, hunting, music, and dance, as well as French and Latin. 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 the young earl 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 is also speculation that Oxford was taught Latin by his maternal uncle, Arthur Golding, who published the first English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses while living at Burghley House.
On 23 July 1567, de Vere 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; his widow and child were consequently stripped of their possessions. (Interestingly, the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed was one of the jurors at this trial.) Oxford obtained a bachelor's degree from Queens College, Cambridge, a master's degree from the University of Oxford, and legal training at Gray's Inn. However, he matriculated at Queen's College at the age of 8 1/2, remained less than a year, and no evidence exists that he ever returned to a university as an active student, so his degrees may have been honorary .
Oxford entered the Royal Court in the late 1560s, upon which one contemporary wrote he would have surpassed all other courtiers in the Queen's favour, were it not for his "fickle head". Oxford nevertheless gained great favour and went on to become a tilting champion in several Elizabethan tournaments.
On 19 December 1571 de Vere married Lord Burghley's fifteen-year-old daughter, Anne Cecil — a controversial choice since Oxford was of the oldest nobility in the kingdom whereas Anne was a parvenu, her father having only been raised to the peerage that year. At the age of twenty-one, Oxford regained control of most of his lands. His marriage produced five children, including three daughters who survived infancy. He toured France, Germany and Italy in 1575, and briefly adopted Roman Catholicism.
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, although 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". Confusing the eldest daughter (Elizabeth) with the youngest (Susan), Francis Osborne (1593-1659) included a bed-trick anecdote about her birth, or, as he termed it, “Pembrok’s Wives descent”, 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), Philip Herbert, then earl of Montgomery (and later Pembroke), was struck in the face by a Scottish courtier named Ramsey at a horse race at Croydon. Herbert, 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, Pembroke’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 pederasty, bestiality, and of plotting to murder a host of courtiers, including 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 lamed in one of the duels. The embroglio 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 cohabitated 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, the 18th Earl of Oxford. The Earl's three daughters, with whom it seems he was never close, all married into the peerage: Elizabeth married Lord Derby; Bridget married Lord Berkshire; Susan married Lord Montgomery, one of the “INCOMPARABLE PAIRE OF BRETHREN” to whom William Shakespeare's First Folio would later be dedicated. (Oxford had died six months prior to this marriage, however; and a couplet regarding Susan recorded in John Manningham's diary circa 1602-03 has been interpreted by some to imply that Oxford was a "deadbeat Dad", yet by others to be "an echo of King Lear.")
Mismanagement of Oxford's finances reduced him to penury, and he was granted an annual pension of £1,000 by the Queen, which continued to be paid by her successor, King James I.
In 1603, Lord 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.
Oxford was described as both a poet and a playwright in his own lifetime, but only his poetry has survived. In addition, he maintained both adult and children's theatre companies, and was a patron of several writers; those who dedicated works to him include Edmund Spenser, Arthur Golding, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Thomas Churchyard, and Thomas Watson.
Oxford was described as a poet in the anonymous Arte of English Poesie (1589). A small corpus of his poems and songs have survived, 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, de Vere was lauded by other English poets, although mostly in regard to his patronage (for example, see one of the epistolary sonnets to Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene). His voluminous catalogue of letters make no mention of a dramatic career or literary matters, focusing instead on business affairs concerning such matters as the Cornish tin monopoly and his ongoing desire for several royal monopolies and stewardships .
Oxford's status as a dramatist is based on the testimony of Francis Meres, in whose Palladis Tamia Oxford is listed among "the best for comedy".
In 1920, J. Thomas Looney advanced the hypothesis that Oxford was the actual author of Shakespeare's plays, due to what Looney perceived as an advanced education, a knowledge of aristocratic life, an interest in the theatre, the praise accorded Oxford's works, and various similarities between Oxford's life and the plays. According to his 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 generally considered by Renaissance scholars, including Steven W. May, to be incongruous with Elizabethan print histories, but which has been defended by Oxfordians, including Diana Price.
Notable Oxfordians include Sigmund Freud, diplomat and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Paul Nitze, Supreme Court Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, former British judge Christmas Humphreys, biographer and historian David McCullough, columnist Joseph Sobran, as well as actors Orson Welles, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Michael York, Jeremy Irons, and Mark Rylance (former Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre).
Looney's beliefs constitute the core of the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship, and the debate over it remains contentious. Evidentiary gaps within and problems with the Oxfordian hypothesis have prevented many academics from considering its viability. For example, 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.
Other candidates who have been put forward as the actual author of the Shakespeare works include Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby, all of whom are predominantly rejected by the academic establishment. 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 .
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