Edward de Vere was something of a pedagogical experiment. In their Platonic desire for a Philosopher King, so eager were the humanistic reformers to educate the nobility, that, following Quintilian, Vives and Elyot, they sought to begin them as early as possible on Latin so that they would begin to absorb the wisdom of the ancients and early Church fathers while still young enough furnish their adult minds with the noblest and most idealistic thoughts. So while the Marian reign had its horrors, it did produce one benefit––to humanity that is––it sent the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom, in many ways the most important domain in England, to Sir Thomas Smith, the most highly qualified Reformation teacher in the nation. No doubt many were watching to see the outcome of this kind of training. This being the Reformation, you can believe that not all were pleased with the results.
Oxford himself must have experienced this interest as pressure, subtle perhaps, but still pressure, as seen, for instance, in the kind of criticisms and suggestions offered by Roger Ascham in his book, The Scholemaster, written for Cecil right at the time that he was first responsible for educating Oxford and Rutland. Oxford must have been aware from very early that all eyes were on him. ”To whom much has been given, much is required.” What a disappointment it much have been to men like Cecil and Ascham and even to Smith when instead of another well-behaved, pious Sidney, who hadn’t begun his studies until the great age of seven, their prime experiment turned to poetry and plays, his vast education little more than grist for the mill of his comedies and love songs.
No doubt his elders gave him time. Poetry was a pastime of youth, something that, as with Thomas Sackville Lord Buckhurt would surely pass when the weight of mature responsibility awakened him to more important things. But as Oxford matured, his interest in literature only deepened. Scorned for his early efforts to join the international community of scholars, he channeled his talents into writing entertainments for the Court. This Cecil tolerated, probably because they pleased the Queen, perhaps also because he saw opportunities for help with the onerous business of creating the propaganda that was one of his most important weapons in the fight to destroy the political power of the Catholics.
As a peer, born to be a patron of the arts, Oxford had fallen into the trap that Elyot and other pedagogues had warned about in educating the nobility, he became an artist himself, and as an artist, as is always the case with a true artist, he held nothing higher than Art. This included rank and all the distinctions and constraints that it held dear. Clear to him from reading Plato was the distinction between the external world and the truth he felt within himself: “for I have that within that passeth show.” They wouldn’t give him the military command his patrimony required, nor the role in the government for which his training had prepared him, so he would fulfill the one thing he had, besides his rank, his inherited office of Lord Great Chamberlain.
The chamberlain of a Tudor household was a sort of glorified butler, one who ate at table with the family rather than with the staff. Often a member of the family from a lesser social level, or one whose family was tied in some way to the fortunes of the family he served, he was responsible for the smooth running of the household, including its removals to other locations and its entertainments at the three big turning points of the year, Christmas/Carneval, Easter/May Day, and Midsummer/St. John’s Day. At the Tudor Court, the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household had the same functions, plus the honor and responsibility of serving as a leading member of the Privy Council. It was an appointed position, and although as with all such offices it was often given to the heir of the former Lord Chamberlain, that was only because having been raised at Court, he was often in the best position to fulfill the office.
England’s Lord Great Chamberlain was, and still is, a very different kind of office. Except for a brief time during the reign of Henry VIII, it’s one of a handful of inherited positions, a vestigial remain from the Middle Ages, when even then all it signified was that this fellow, his father before him, and his heirs after him, was the official best friend of the monarch. Since the earliest days of the Norman hegemony all that’s required of the LGC is that he appear dressed appropriately for processions in which his place comes after the Lord Privy Seal, and before the Lord High Constable, and that he act as personal attendant to the monarch at his or her coronation, something that generally occures no more than once or twice in a lifetime, or with a particularly long-lived monarch, not even that. From the very beginning this honorary office had belonged to members of the Vere family, as it still does today, having been shifted to descendants of Oxford’s sister Mary’s husband, Sir Peregrine Bertie (the Earls of Lindsay), when Oxford’s line died out with the death of the 20th Earl.
Looking around for something that could define his ambiguous role in his community, Oxford took advantage of this rather empty office, turning it into something genuine and powerful. It was probably as surprising to him as to anyone else when out of his genius and the great need of the English public for entertainment was born the Fourth Estate of modern government, what we call the media, which, in those days consisted of the London Stage and commercial Press.
There may be a kernal of truth to the rumor that Oxford ruined his patrimony out of revenge at Lord Burghley, though the proper wording would be out of the necessity to find something for himself in what he’d been left by his father. Awakening gradually to the horrible mess left by that foolish father; aware, probably from the start, that Burghley, his one and only financial advisor, was more concerned about his own family, their wealth and prestige, than he or they were about him; raised by the parsimonious Smith, whose ascetic diet and modest dress were the foundation of a lifestyle that, once the peacock period of Oxford’s twenties was over, required little more than a secretary, ink and paper; he used his wealth, whatever it was (he could never be sure) and his credit as a peer (for as long as it lasted), to praise his friends, wound his enemies and influence national policy by way of his favorite audience, the lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End. When his own credit and wealth ran out, he turned to the “angels” that every theatrical enterprise requires, chronologically: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, the Earl of Southampton and the third Earl of Pembroke, all of whom play an important role in their patronage of the great experiment we call Shakespeare.