To make as clear as I can what parts of this scenario are based on solid fact and what is conjecture, I’ll use probably or likely for tradition or conjecture, both mine and others, and possibly where I have to use more conjecture than usual. Please keep in mind that everything else can be supported by some kind of documentation. If you want to know the support for a particular point, just ask.
Oxford was born April 22, 1550 (New Style), probably in a nunnery near the seat of the Oxford earldom at Hedingham Castle (#1 on the map). Given the fact that his father was at the center of the political and religious turbulence at that time, primarily on the Protestant side, the all important heir was probably allowed to remain in protective custody with the nuns until some other plan was devised for him. (As per a centuries old tradition, noble children were rarely raised in their parents’ home.)
With the accession of Catholic Queen Mary Tudor to the English throne, and her marriage to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Protestant community in England knew itself to be in danger of pogroms, imprisonment, torture, hanging and burning. It was at this time (December 1554) that the all important Oxford heir was transferred to the household of the famed Greek scholar and former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, whose job it would be to raise and educate him. It may also have been a temporary solution to get the four-year-old out of harm’s way until some other situation was found for him. In any case he would remain with Smith for the better part of eight years.
De Vere’s first four years with Smith were spent at Ankerwycke, Smith’s manor on the Thames in Berkshire, a few miles south of Windsor Castle and across the river from Runnymede and the Royal Forest of Windsor (#2 and #3 on the map). There he was drilled in Greek and Latin, and, as one historian put it, “stuffed with learning like a Strasbourg goose.” Besides his academic studies, little Ned also absorbed his tutor’s fascination with astrology, horticulture, gardening, distilling, Paracelsian medicine, hunting and hawking, subjects referred to frequently, often as metaphors, in works published years later under the pun-name Shakespeare. Although many of his colleagues left England when Mary took the throne, Smith remained quietly at home, as did his former student and recent colleague on the Court of Edward VI, William Cecil, during this period his neighbor downstream at Wimbledon.
With the death of Mary in November 1558, eight-year-old de Vere was enrolled at Smith’s alma mater, Queen’s College, Cambridge, (#5 on the map) (probably) so Smith would be free to help Cecil with the accession of Elizabeth. Having made himself useful to the Princess during her sister’s reign, Cecil was in charge of getting her on the throne as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Cecil’s relationship with Smith is made clear by the way he put him at the center of planning for her first parliament and for the Elizabethan version of the Book of Common Prayer, cornerstone of the English Restoration.
When Smith failed to get the place on Elizabeth’s Privy Council that he expected, he was back in Essex by June 1559 at Hill Hall (#4 on the map), the manor he was rebuilding not far from his original home town of Saffron Waldon, a few miles south of Cambridge. Since de Vere’s records at Cambridge end in March, it’s likely that he continued to study with Smith at Hill Hall until his father’s death in 1562. Now the 17th Earl of Oxford and therefore a ward of the Crown, the twelve-year-old was transferred to the care of William Cecil, now the Queen’s Secretary of State and Master of the Court of Wards, freeing Smith to leave for France for a four-year stint as English Ambassador to the French Court.
During Oxford’s first years at Cecil House he was the youngest member of a coterie of young translators and poets who no doubt looked to him as a future patron, and who also surely influenced him to write himself. It was during this period that, a few weeks before his enrollment at the London college of Law, Gray’s Inn, two of the first three modern plays in English were performed as holiday entertainments at the Inn. Showing distinct signs of the voice that would someday be Shakespeare, these were later published as by George Gascoigne, one of the more needy members of the Cecil House coterie.
It was also during this time that the translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses into English fourteeners was published as translated by Oxford’s uncle, Arthur Golding. It’s long been accepted as Shakespeare’s favorite source of material. It was also during this time that the long narrative poem Romeus and Juliet, source for Shakespeare’s play, was published as the work of Arthur Brooke, nephew of Cecil’s close friend Sir William Brooke Ld Cobham, who lived in the same complex of buildings in the Liberty of Blackfriars, a couple of miles up the road from Cecil House, that later would become the first Blackfriars Theater, where (probably) Oxford rehearsed the young actors in the various Children’s companies to prepare for their Court performances in the 1570s.
Although there are no records of Oxford’s attendance at either university, it’s possible that, as “Richard Vere,” he studied for several semesters c. 1564-66 under Master Thomas Bernard at Christ Church Oxford. It’s also likely that the play Palamon and Arcite, given at the great hall at Christ Church for the commencement ceremony in June 1566 was written by Oxford (revised and later published as Two Noble Kinsmen), though attributed to Richard Edwards, Master of the Children’s Chapell. Another of Bernard’s students at the time, George Pettie, would later allow his name to be used to publish what was probably one of Oxford’s first publishing ventures, the collection of tales known as Pettie’s Petite Pallace, forerunner in theme and style to the series of Robert Greene tales he would be publishing a few years later.
Marriage, Italy, and separation
Coming of age in 1571, another tradition kicked in, whereby a ward’s guardian marries him to his daughter. That December, Oxford was married to Anne Cecil in what was obviously not a love match, at least not on his side. During these years his name appeared on lists of persons attending the Queen on her annual summer progresses, he produced at least one entertainment for the Court in which his friends took several roles, and (probably) many others that were never recorded; he wrote a lot of mediocre love poetry and published some of it in 1574 in an anthology titled One Hundreth Sundrie Flowres; he (probably) worked with the Court musicians and the chorus boys to create holiday programs; and he begged to be allowed to travel to France and Italy.
In 1575 the Queen and Ld Burghley finally gave him permission to travel for a year. (Cecil had been made a Baron so that his daughter, like Helen in Alls Well that Ends Well, could marry into the peerage.) He met the French king and his sister Marguerite (whom he claimed later had seduced him), and travelled with a retinue of about 15 henchmen through Southern France. Crossing the Alps into the land of Renaissance art, music, architecture and theater, he spent a year absorbing the kind of haute culture that did not yet exist in England, enjoying the company of Italy’s princes, artists, poets, and the beautiful and intelligent courtesans whose sat (naked) for portraits of Venus painted by Titian.
In April 1576, robbed by pirates on his way back to England, he went ballistic over rumors that the daughter his wife bore while he was away wasn’t his. Knowing Anne, he was (probably) less disturbed over her rumored behavior than over the way his in-laws had allowed it to become, as he called it, “the fable of the world.” Seeking (probably) any excuse to free himself from the puritanical Cecils, he set up housekeeping as a bachelor and began writing in earnest for the two theaters he (probably) helped to create upon his return, the big outdoor public stage in the East End built by James Burbage, and Blackfriars, the little private indoor theater in the West End.
In 1578 and ’79, backed by his mentor, the Earl of Sussex, Oxford was at the pinnacle of his Court influence. Admired for his handsome figure, his wit, dancing, largesse, skill at the tilts, and also (probably) the entertainments that he sponsored, a contemporary noted that he was the foremost figure at Court. As for his entertainments, alhough not everyone would have known how much of both words and music were his, no one cared; for all they knew, or cared, it was all the work of the chorus master.
But the atmosphere of intrigue and gossip at Court was telling on an artist raised in solitude. Oxford (who may have had a condition akin to bipolar disorder) went to extremes, spent too much time drinking with his Catholic cousins, the Howards, absorbing their bitterness and self-pity, and getting involved with one of their cousins, a Queen’s maid of honor. When she gave birth to his son in the Queen’s own chamber, that was it for Oxford. (Use of the term Catholic here usually means the political party, not the religion.)
Two months of hard time in the Tower followed by six more months of house arrest, however humiliating, freed him from having to dance attendance on the jealous and vindictive Queen. With his time his own, perhaps for the first time in his life, ideas (probably) began pouring into his head. Plots and characters from things he’d read as a child with Smith combined with current events and his own private joys and griefs, (probably) burst forth in a torrent of plays created for his favorite audience, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, (probably) produced at the private theater at Blackfriars and acted by the adult actors he’d come to know at Court.
Among these first sprouts of what would someday be his masterpieces were (probably) the first version of Hamlet (probably) fueled by his grief over the death of his mentor Sussex; Romeo and Juliet (probably) a love song to his forbidden mistress); Julius Caesar (probably) a lesson for his Howard cousins and any other Catholic recusant who might be plotting to kill the Queen; and Coriolanus (probably) his excuse for having considered fighting for Spain.
Most of these would be revised in later years, some more than once, so the Shakespeare versions that we know from the First Folio would be quite different, particularly in style. Luckily we can get an idea of what his style was like at that time from two plays that still exist in their original form: The Spanish Tragedy (attributed to Thomas Kyd) written in a fury of frustration, in which he experimented with tropes soon used to better effect in the earliest version of Hamlet; and the (anonymous) “Play of Sir Thomas More” (possibly) written in an attempt to save Edmund Campion, though (probably) never performed.
The University Wits
Living in a renovated manor in Bishopsgate, walking distance from Burbage’s public Theatre and (in the other direction) from two of the major City theater inns, Oxford surrounded himself with secretaries, wits, actors, and musicians (referred to by Burghley as his “lewd friends”). With Sussex dying, early in 1583 Sir Francis Walsingham (a close friend and former colleague of his tutor Smith) took over the Court Stage that Sussex had wrested from Leicester in the ’70s.
(Probably) unwilling to let Leicester or his client, Ld Strange, retake control of what (probably under Oxford) was fast becoming the bully pulpit of the nation, Walsingham sold the Queen on taking the best actors of the three top companies to form a Crown company. This he would use to encourage conservative provincial audiences in the north and west to put their nation ahead of their religion in the coming showdown with Spain. These provincials were wedded to the Old Religion by Bible stories of heroes like Moses and Samson. Maybe stories about English heroes like Prince Hal and brave Talbot would rouse a patriotic loyalty to England equal to their loyalty to Rome.
Living just steps away at the Papey, Walsingham (probably) encouraged the crew at Fisher’s Folly, (probably) funding them out of his own pocket for several years before he was finally able to talk the Queen into funding them more directly via an annuity for Oxford. Concerned to have enough plays for both the adult actors, the Queen’s Men, and the Children’s companies that she preferred for her holiday entertainment, Walsingham (possibly) enrolled Francis Bacon to write the plays for the children that Oxford no longer had time for, assisted by Oxford’s secretary John Lyly.
Birth of the English periodical press
One of the ways that Oxford (probably) entertained the Queen and her ladies during his heyday at Court was by telling them “winter tales” in the old storyteller tradition, mostly pastoral tales in the tradition of the Greek romances that were being translated into English, some of them (possibly) by Oxford himself, but certainly by friends like Thomas Bedingfield. He may have liked to make up tales of his own, based on the pastoral format but tailored to the feelings and circumstances of his listeners. These he would have scribbled on foolscap, later reading or reciting them aloud to the assembly, perhaps backed by one of the Court musicians on the virginals or lute.
He had registered one of these with the Stationers in 1580, but it wasn’t until Walsingham talked him back to Court in 1583 that he went ahead with getting them published. Just as John Lyly was (probably) related to one of his father’s retainers, so (probably) was Robert Greene, the name he used to publish his tales. (Others were published as by George Pettie, Thomas Lodge, or Barnabe Riche.) In this way he continued to entertain his female patrons at Court and, through the dedications, sometimes showing his support for courtiers currently out of favor with Her Majesty.
For Walsingham and the Queen’s Men Oxford wrote first (or in some cases perhaps second) versions of the history plays that we know from his later Shakespeare versions: The Famous Victories of Henry V (later used for Henry V and Henry IV Part One); The Contention between Lancaster and York (later the Henry VI plays); the True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York (later Richard III and Henry VI Part Three); and so forth. Two other history plays discovered long after in manuscript were also (probably) written for the Queen’s Men:Edmund Ironside and Thomas of Woodstock. Ironside may have been written with East Anglian audiences in mind, since the events portrayed took place in that area. Woodstock is clearly the prequel to Shakespeare’s Richard II, while Woodstock himself (the Duke of Gloucester) is a fairly obvious protrait of his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, who died shortly after Oxford’s return from Italy. With his style showing more and more of the Shakespeare characteristics, we know we are well into the mid-to-late 1580s, though still very much in a pre-Shakespearean period. It would take several body blows in rapid succession to move him past the juvenile style of Woodstock into his final, greatest period.
Exit Alleyn and Marlowe
The summer of 1584, someone (probably Walsingham) brought a new member into the Fisher’s Folly group, young Christopher Marlowe, the shoemaker’s son from Canterbury, then making a name for himself at Cambridge as a brilliant scholar and writer. And so (probably) began the period when Oxford and (probably) his other writers, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and Francis Bacon, taught Marlowe how to turn his talent for poetry to writing plays for the Queen’s Men.
It was during this same period that Oxford and comedian Richard Tarleton were teaching young Edward Alleyn the basics of acting. Oxford and his merry men had found Alleyn working in his family’s Inn, the Pye, located two doors down from Fisher’s Folly. Finding it difficult to rehearse with the boys at Blackfriars, due to the vendetta being waged on him and his retainers by his former lover’s male relatives, Oxford turned to adult actors who lived nearby in Shoreditch (aka Norton Folgate), but for Romeo, Benvolio, Hal, Poins, and the Bastard Falconbridge, he needed actors in their teens and early twenties. (Today’s procenium theaters allow older actors to play young parts, but in the small private theaters and the public theaters that operated in the full light of day, young characters had to be played by young actors.) Obviously gifted and born to act, Alleyn learned quickly.
Unfortunately for Oxford, these young working-class men (Alleyn was 18 then, Marlowe 20) were certain they knew better than he or his secretaries what kind of story would please the rapidly growing public audience, particularly the young apprentices. Restive under the restraints that both Burbage and Oxford knew were necessary, they broke free from the theater community in Shoreditch and went to the new theater that was just being built on Bankside, across the river. This was the Rose, whose owner, entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, probably made them a pretty good deal. Marlowe’s play was a smash hit, turning Alleyn into England’s first superstar. Unfortunately it was also Marlowe’s death warrant, and might have been Alleyn’s as well had not (probably) his patron, Ld Charles Howard, saved him.
Marlowe, unrestrained, made it clear he had something newer and better to offer than the “clownage” of the Queen’s Men. Furious, Oxford used one of his Robert Greene pamphlets––Perimedes the Blacksmith––to lash out at him and at the Ld Strange’s Men, the company that was performing Marlowe’s smash hit, Tamburlaine.
Francis Bacon, bored with the dull stuff he was forced to do to earn a living, had (probably) been entertaining himself and the Court with the endless narrative poem written in an odd old-fashioned meter that he would later attribute to one Edmund Spenser, a secretary to Lord Grey in Ireland. But Francis thirsted for madder music and stronger wine. Sick of toeing the line for Burghley, Walsingham, and other well-heeled patrons; all afire from responding to Martin Mar-prelate for his old tutor, John Whitgift; Bacon (probably) yearned to find a way to gnash his own literary teeth at those persons and things that aggravated him. Oxford gave him the chance with one of his later Greene pamphlets, Menaphon, in which both lambasted their betrayers at the Rose.
The mighty nineties
Oxford was going through a metamorphosis; though he may not have realized it quite yet, the world was changing, and he was changing with it. The theater he had created, though still under fire from all sides, was an industry now, one that might suffer blows of various sorts, but was obviously not going to totally succumb to vilification from the pulpit or proclamations by City officials. Bishopsgate had been a relatively peaceful semi-rural neighborhood back in 1580 when Oxford first moved there, but by the early ’90s it was the mare’s nest of pubs and tenements, of prostitutes, bawds, and pickpockets he portrayed in Measure for Measure.
Where once there was only Oxford and his writers, Lodge, Peele, Bacon, and then Marlowe, now a crew of wouldbe professional writers had sprung up, long on ambition and short on funds or education, writers like Dekker, Deloney, Munday and Chettle. Marlowe at least could write, after all, his style was essentially Oxford’s of five years earlier, but some of the new writers, the “scribbling rascality,” would stoop to any filty pun or reckless thrust at authority. Oxford knew the authorities would not sit quietly by for long, though, hampered by his anonymity, he could only rant via his Robert Greene persona. The genie of free speech was out of the bottle, and although that was certainly not his intent, he must have felt responsible. Other insiders and former patrons would have blamed him as well, most bitterly his Cecil in-laws. On the verge of his forties, Oxford’s fortunes were about to take another plunge.
Down goes Icarus
In 1588, as the smoke cleared from the victory over the Spanish Armada and England turned once again to domestic troubles, personal sorrows began to accumulate. His wife had died just before the Spanish showdown. One of his little daughters had died only months earlier. His best friend from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland, had died the year before, just days before taking office as Lord Chancellor. To balance things out, two of his longtime adversaries were also gone, Leicester in ’88, and his mother-in-law in ‘89. But the most immediate and biggest blow must have been the death of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590. As with the death of Sussex in the early ’80s, his (probable) greatest champion at Court was gone, his place taken by the man who would prove his worst enemy.
Adding to his woes, years of operating in the red were catching up with him. He’d run out of estates to sell; patrons who had co-signed for his loans were under pressure to make the payments he’d failed to make. Forced to sell (or pass on his lease to) Fisher’s Folly, he was left without a place of his own to live. His secretaries sought better, or at least, better-placed masters; those who couldn’t find work sent begging letters to his father-in-law. Former patrons, disgusted, dropped him. At one point he got so low it seems he was living off money borrowed from two of his former retainers, putting them into debt. It’s hard to tell how much the Cecils had to do with his troubles at this time, but they not only (probably) blamed him for Anne’s death, they were furious with the writing community he’d helped to establish. Was he not King of the Paper Stage? They wouldn’t kill him, as they soon would Marlowe, but they were not about to give him any more help. Warned of troubles to come, he thought it best to rid himself of Robert Greene.
As a fictional character, Greene could only be eliminated in print, so, ever willing to kill two birds with one stone, he (probably) sent a letter to the printer as though from (poor scapegoated) Gabriel Harvey, in which he has pseudo-Harvey describe in detail the miserable death of Robert Greene. This he followed with Greene’s Groatsworth of Witte, supposedly written by Greene in his death agonies, in which he took a final shot at Alleyn (“Shake-scene” the “upstart crow”) and Marlowe (the “famous gracer of tragedians”). In Groatsworth he warned Marlowe that if he didn’t shape up “little knowst thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.” Clearly Oxford was aware, whether directly from Cecil or indirectly from informants, that his former student was skating on thin ice.