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 was one of the leading patrons of the Elizabethan age and, during his lifetime, 33 works were dedicated to the Earl, including publications on religion, philosophy, medicine and music. The focus of his patronage, however, was literary, with 13 of the books presented to him either original or translated works of world literature. Authors dedicating their works to de Vere include Edmund Spenser, Arthur Golding, John Lyly, Anthony Munday, and Thomas Churchyard, the latter three writers all having been employed by de Vere for various periods of time. He also patronized musicians, including the composers William Byrd and John Farmer. His extensive patronage, as well as possible mismanagement of his estates, forced the sale of his ancestral lands. In 1586, Queen Elizabeth I granted the Earl an annuity of £1,000. De Vere was awarded military commands in 1585 in Flanders and in 1588 during the Spanish Armada.
Oxford is today most well known as the strongest alternative candidate proposed 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.
As a student, Oxford benefited from the tutelage of some of the greatest minds of the Elizabethan age. He was first tutored by the Cambridge don and statesman, Sir Thomas Smith Thomas Smith (diplomat) at his estate of Ankerwycke  in the Upper Thames Valley from some time in 1554 until the death of Queen Mary. Smith likely taught Oxford a great deal about the subjects which were his abiding passions: civil law, the ancient Greek and Latin languages and literature, horticulture, astronomy-astrology, Paracelsian medicine, and hawking . When Smith was called to prepare for the accession of Elizabeth , Oxford enrolled at Smith's alma mater, Queens' College, Cambridge, where he remained for five months . Another of Oxford's tutors was Thomas Fowle, a fellow at St. John's, Cambridge.
On the death of his father on 3 August 1562, the twelve-year-old Oxford became the 17th Earl of Oxford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England, inheriting an annual income of approximately £2250. In his last will and testament, the 16th Earl appointed six executors, including his widow and his only son and heir; however administration of the will was granted on 29 May 1563 to only one of the executors, the 16th Earl's former servant, Robert Christmas.
Because the 16th Earl held land from the Crown by knight service, Oxford became a royal ward and was placed in the household of Sir William Cecil, the Secretary of State, a leading member of Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council, and one of her chief advisors. In view of Oxford's theatrical activities, it is interesting to note that Cecil is regarded by many Elizabethan scholars as the prototype for the character of Polonius in Hamlet. Shortly after the 16th Earl's death, Oxford's mother, Margery (née Golding), married a Gentleman Pensioner named Charles Tyrrell, often erroneously stated to have been the sixth son of Sir Thomas Tyrrell of East Horndon and his wife, Constance Blount, although it is clear from his will that he was not a member of that branch of the Tyrrell family. Oxford's mother died five years later, on 2 December 1568. Oxford's stepfather, Charles Tyrrell, died in 1570, leaving bequests to Oxford and to Oxford's sister, Mary de Vere, in his will.
As a ward, under Sir William Cecil's supervision Oxford studied French, Latin, writing, drawing, cosmography, dancing, riding and shooting. At Cecil House he was tutored by Laurence Nowell, one of the founding fathers of Anglo-Saxon studies. Nowell was Oxford's tutor 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"). Oxford may also have assisted his maternal uncle, Arthur Golding, in the first English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In 1564, while both were living at Cecil House in the Strand, 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)
During the Queen's visits to Cambridge and Oxford universities in 1564 and 1566, Oxford was awarded a BA by the University of Cambridge on 10 August 1564  and an MA from the University of Oxford on 6 September 1566. On 1 February 1566 he was admitted to Gray's Inn, where he studied law. Alan Nelson, a Stratfordian Oxford biographer, argues that because such degrees were awarded to numerous other persons of rank in the same royal visits they were merely honorary and “unearned," and that “no academic accomplishment or dessert is to be imputed to any recipient.” Oxfordian biographers of Oxford disagree with that assessment and point to what John Brooke had to say of Oxford in his dedicatory epistle of The Staff of Christian Faith, published in 1577:
"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 accidentally killed an unarmed under-cook, Thomas Brincknell, while practising fencing with Edward Baynham, a merchant tailor, in the backyard of Cecil House in the Strand. The finding of the coroner's inquest was that Brincknell, being intoxicated, 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.)
Oxford was a leading patron of the arts and drama of Elizabethan England, with at least thirty-three works of literature, history, philosophy, theology, music, military theory, and medicine, dedicated to him. Stephen May, commenting on this tradition, calls him “a nobleman with extraordinary intellectual interests and commitments” whose biography exhibits a "lifelong devotion to learning.” Continues May: "The range of Oxford's patronage is as remarkable as its substance. Beginning around 1580 he was the nominal patron of a variety of dramatic troupes, including a band of tumblers as well as companies of adult and boy actors. Among the thirty-three works dedicated to the Earl, six deal with religion and philosophy, two with music, and three with medicine; but the focus of his patronage was literary, for thirteen of the books presented to him were original or translated works of literature." Works patronized by Oxford include Thomas Underdown's influential historical novel Aethiopica (1569), the first Latin translation of Baldassare Castiglione's Courtier (1571),Thomas Bedingfield's (1573) translation of Jerome Cardan's de Comforte (sometimes called "Hamlet's Book"), John Lyly's second Euphues novel, Euphues and His England (1580), Thomas Watson's Hekatompathia (1581), and the first epistolary instruction manual to use English letters as models (Angel Day's English Secretary, 1586).
By indenture of 1 July 1562, Oxford's father, the 16th Earl, had arranged a marriage for him with one of the sisters of Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon. However when Oxford became a royal ward, this contract was allowed to lapse, and on 16 December 1571 he 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. As master of the queen's Court of Wards, however, Burghley had the power to arrange the marriages of his wards or impose huge fines upon them. Oxford's marriage produced five children, a son and daughter who died young, and three daughters who survived infancy. The Earl's daughters all married into the peerage: Elizabeth married William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby; Bridget married Francis Norris, 1st Earl of Berkshire; and Susan married Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, one of the “INCOMPARABLE PAIRE OF BRETHREN” to whom William Shakespeare's First Folio would be dedicated. Shortly after his marriage, at the age of twenty-two, Oxford was licensed to enter on his lands by the Queen's letters patent of 30 May 1572.
By the 1570s he was a major figure in the Elizabethan court and a leading contender for the affection of Elizabeth I. In a letter of 11 May 1573, one contemporary, Gilbert Talbot, wrote that Oxford had lately grown in great credit with the Queen, and "were it not for his fickle head he would pass any of them shortly". Oxford remained in favour for a time, and won prizes in several tilting tournaments at court.
On his return across the English Channel in April 1576, 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. Gossip speculated that the child was not his, and Oxford complained that her father's handling of the birth date had made Ann become "the fable of the world". Thus he refused to live with her from 1576 until 1581. In December of 1580, Oxford accused two of his Catholic friends, Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, of treason, and denounced them to the Queen, asking mercy for his own Catholicism, which he repudiated. Both Howard and Arundel later received pensions from Philip II, and furnished Spain with intelligence against England, suggesting that Oxford's allegations against them in 1581 were not without merit. After fleeing to the house of the Spanish ambassador, Mendoza, on the night of 25 December 1580, Howard and Arundel gave themselves up to the authorities, were placed under arrest, and 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 against Oxford were not taken seriously at the time, although the libels found their way into some historical accounts and Oxford's reputation was thereafter tarnished. Charles Arundel later fled England in December 1583 for fear of arrest, was declared guilty of high treason in 1585, and died in exile in Paris in 1587. Lord Henry Howard was again arrested in 1583 and 1585, but remained in England throughout Queen Elizabeth's reign, and was created Earl of Northampton by her successor, King James I.
Oxford fathered an illegitimate son by Anne Vavasour, Sir Edward Vere, in 1581, and for this offence was imprisoned in the Tower of London for several months, and later placed under house arrest and banished from court. He was not permitted to return to court until 1 June 1583. By Christmas of 1581, after a five year separation, Oxford had reconciled with his wife, Anne Cecil. However his affair with Anne Vavasour led to a fray in the streets of London in 1582 with Anne Vavasour's uncle, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a courtier in favour with the Queen. On 3 March 1582, Oxford fought with Knyvet, and both men were 'hurt', Oxford 'more dangerously,' and Oxford's man 'Gerret' was slain. Oxford's injury perhaps resulted in the lameness mentioned in his letter to Lord Burghley of 25 March 1595.
In 1585, Lord Oxford was given a military command in Flanders, 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.
Extensive patronage, as well as possible mismanagement of his finances reduced Oxford to straitened financial circumstances, and in 1586 he was granted an annual pension of £1,000 by the Queen. 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, and that the obscurity of his later life is to be explained by his immersion in literary and dramatic pursuits. As noted above, he was indeed a notable patron of writers including Edmund Spenser, Arthur Golding, Robert Greene, and Thomas Churchyard. In addition to patronizing the creative work of John Lyly and Anthony Munday, both considered important sources for and influences on Shakespeare, he employed them as secretaries, although for how long is not clearly known. According to at least one 17th century source (Anthony A. Wood), he also employed for some time the Democritean philosopher Nicholas Hill as a secretary.
Oxford seemed destined to enjoy greater favour under King James, whose accession he supported, than he had during the latter years of Queen Elizabeth's reign. On 18 July 1603, the King granted Oxford's decades-long suit to be restored to the offices of steward of Waltham Forest and keeper of the King's house and park at Havering, and on 2 August 1603 the King confirmed Oxford's annuity of £1000. Less than a year later, Oxford died on 24 June 1604 of unknown causes at Brooke House in Hackney. He was buried on 6 July at St John-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 little of his poetry, and none of his plays has survived, at least under his own name, calling to mind the testament of the anonymously published Arte of English Poesie (1589), in which the author, possibly George Puttenham, observed:
"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, both for his patronage and for his own literary, scholarly, and musical avocations(for example, see one of the epistolary sonnets to Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene).
He was apparently a prolific writer, and among the works that have been attributed to his pen are those published in 1589 under the sobriquet "Pasquill Cavaliero of England." Other scholars have suggested, although the theory has not gained popular acceptance, that Oxford was somehow involved in the 1573 collection of poetry attributed to soldier of fortune and poet George Gascoigne, Hundreth Sundrie Flowres. The anonymous comedy Famous Victories of Henry V, written before 1588 but not published until 1600, is also among the works attributed to him by modern scholars.
Oxford’s surviving correspondence focuses mainly on business affairs such 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” due to a number of close verbal and philosophical 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 including foreign languages; background in the theatre; the praise accorded Oxford's plays and poems; his knowledge of aristocratic life, history, the military, and the law; and the numerous similarities between Oxford's life and the plots of the plays themselves. According to this hypothesis, Oxford had no choice but to publish under a pseudonym, since it would have been considered disgraceful for an aristocrat to write openly 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 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, U.S. 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.
As recently as November, 2009, German historian Kurt Kreiler has also maintained the idea that the Earl of Oxford did write the plays of William Shakespeare, and he was featured on DW TV maintaining his position.
Debate over the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship remains contentious. Alleged evidentiary gaps within 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. Stratfordians also believe that 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), provide some of the clearest evidence supporting Shakespeare of Stratford's status as the author of the Shakespearean canon.
Oxfordians respond that modern research shows that not one of Shakespeare's plays has a proven source published after 1604, the year of Oxford's death. Furthermore, Oxfordian biographers William Farina and Mark Anderson have provided research demonstrating that regular publication of new Shakespeare plays stopped in 1604. Also, Oxfordians have long cited printed examples which they think imply the author known as "Shake-speare" died prior to 1609, when SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS were published without the authors permission, with a preface referring to "our ever-living poet", "ever-living" being a phrase regularly used to describe someone who was already deceased. In Henry V, for example, the dead king Henry is referred to as "that ever-living man of memory".
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.
Were I a king I might command content;
|“||Love Thy Choice
Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, my heart ?
If women could be fair and yet not fond,
The Earl of Oxford
|Lord Great Chamberlain
The Earl of Oxford
|Peerage of England|
John de Vere
|Earl of Oxford
Henry de Vere