Evidence for Oxford’s childhood with Smith

Sometimes a single fact can become the key to an entire period in history.  Oxford’s childhood with Sir Thomas Smith is that sort of key, not just to complete our picture of Oxford’s life, but to complete the picture of Oxford as Shakespeare, and beyond that, of Shakespeare as central to the history of England during what may well have been the most crucial period in her history and absolutely the most crucial period in her literary history and the history of the London Stage.

By establishing Smith as Oxford’s surrogate father, the Aristotle to his Alexander, the Plato to his Aristotle, the Leopold Mozart to his Amadeus, we have the riches of Smith’s library where dozens of titles provide the sources for some of Shakespeare’s most valued works.  We have, through Smith, the source of Shakespeare’s legal and distilling metaphors, his ascetic attitude towards food, his lack of religious bias, his Platonic philosophy.  Through his years at Ankerwycke we have the source of his river, gardening, and hawking metaphors (as noted by Caroline Spurgeon), his sympathy for animals, the forest’s deer, the meadow’s rabbits and birds, the garden’s caterpillars and snails.  In Smith, we have four of Shakespeare’s most vital characters, Holofernes from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Thomas of Woodstock from Richard II Part One, Gonzalo from The Tempest, and, greatest of all, Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet.

We also have a number of smaller though tighter connections, such as the metaphor of a haggard hawk for a wayward woman, something Smith touches on twice in the few quotes provided by his biographers, or, in the advice Polonius gives Laertes, the advice to noblemen written by Smith during the period that Edward was living with him (Strype 53-5).  With all of this securely in place, ipso facto: Oxford was Shakespeare––evidence that comes later is simply icing on the cake.  And with Oxford confirmed as Shakespeare we can also complete our puzzle of the entire period, of all of the missing literary history, and even much of the mainstream history, for Shakespeare and his works are as central to the history of the Elizabethan era as is Elizabeth herself, or Burghley, Bacon, Raleigh, or Drake.  Thus while Smith is the biggest missing piece of the Shakespeare puzzle, Oxford is the biggest missing piece of the Elizabethan Court puzzle.

This is what makes it crucial that we ground our view of Oxford’s childhood with Smith in provable facts.  It was largely my purpose when, driven by an offhand remark by Mary Dewar in her biography of Smith, I spent six weeks in England in 2004 (funded by a fellowship raised by Dr. Daniel Wright of Concordia University) to see three of Smith’s notebooks for myself.  These, two in the library at Queens’ College Cambridge and one in the archives at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford, seemed at first to offer nothing.  I didn’t realize until later that one did in fact hold one of the clues that I was seeking.  Not all clues are of equal weight, but as it happens, this one’s a pip.

In each of the two notebooks at Queens’ College are inventories, the same except in minor wording, one written in 1561, one in 1569, in which he notes the 20 rooms at Ankerwycke, listing the contents of each.  In the first, #49, a room on the upper floor between his father’s room and the maid’s chamber is labeled “In my L. Chambre.”  In the 1569 inventory in notebook #83, page 123, a similar list is headed with the words: “In my Lorde’s Chambre.”

1561 inventory of Ankerwycke rooms, “In my L’s Chambre”

By “My Lorde” Smith must have meant de Vere, who, born “Viscount Bulbeck,” was considered a “lord” from birth.  Smith was punctilious about terminology, particularly where social distinctions were concerned, so he would never have made a mistake by called somebody a lord who was not, in fact, a lord.  Strype “supposes” that by “my Lorde” Smith meant the Duke of Somerset (170), but that’s impossible since Ankerwycke wasn’t finished until 1553, by which time Somerset was dead, nor would someone as self-righteous as Smith have wished to memorialize a master with whom he had had such profound differences.  It could not be Cecil, since from 1550 until Elizabeth’s accession Cecil kept his own household at The Parsonage at Wimbledon not far from Ankerwycke, nor did Cecil become a lord until 1571, long after Smith had drawn up these inventories.  Other than these, there is simply no lord other than de Vere who could possibly have had his own room in Smith’s home.

When we add this evidence to the phrase “brought up in my house” from the 1576 letter to Cecil, we should have enough to place Oxford with Smith for the better part of eight years, and in so doing, add to his story the riches of experience he gained as a child in a traditional country manor with all that that implies, as I’ve detailed in a number of blogs, pages, lectures, and articles.  Among many other puzzle fits, this scenario provides a reason for de Vere’s placement at Queens’ College for five months in his ninth year, Queens’ being Smith’s alma mater, and Smith needing that time to assist Cecil with preparations for Elizabeth’s accession, a hard fact for which we have more than enough evidence.

De Vere was still with Smith when the first list was written.  As for the 1569 inventory, although Oxford was no longer a member of Smith’s household, that Smith would continue to use his name for the room is seen by how he continued to call the room next to de Vere’s “my father’s chambre,” although Smith’s father died the summer of 1557.

By examining an actual document, its visual appearance can add to what its text and authorship have to tell us.  For instance, in the letter in which Smith finally turns to the issue of Oxford’s treatment of Burghley upon his return from Italy, that Smith was more emotional at the end than he was anywhere else in the letter is obvious from the condition of the paper at this point.  The pen was pressed so hard on the paper that the ink is darker here and the stroke thicker than anywhere else in the letter, so hard that the acid in the ink had eaten away the paper at that spot to a degree that it threatened to render a few of the words unintelligible.  I showed it to the librarian in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, suggesting they do something to preserve it before it crumbles completely.

8 thoughts on “Evidence for Oxford’s childhood with Smith

  1. Hi Stephanie,

    What comes across quite clearly in your thoughts on this topic is that Smith’s household would be a very appealing place for us to see Oxford spending his formative years. Happily, we do have “one solid fact”, in Smith’s own hand, that Oxford did, indeed, spend time there. With this one tantalizing fact, you’ve done important research that I hope to find ways to build upon, as I’m sure others will as well.

    However, we still don’t have a solid fact that he actually went there in 1554. We have your interpretation of the political scene at the time, and your impression of what should have happened in these circumstances. But we don’t have documents from Cecil, or Smith, or the boy’s own father, John de Vere, that place Oxford with Smith in 1554. You may well be right – but if we want to construct a credible biography, we’ve got to admit uncertainties now and then, and correctly label them as such.

    I certainly agree with you that there was tremendous upheaval in John de Vere’s household at the time Mary came to the throne. I believe that Oxford tells his side of this story in the revenge tragedy, “Titus Andronicus”. My biography of Oxford, “The First Mousetrap: Titus Andronicus and the Tudor Massacre of the Howards” traces his cleverly submerged narrative of the traumas his Aunt Frances must have witnessed at court during the reign of Henry VIII. I’ve posted the introduction and first chapter online – just click my name for the link.

    It appears to me that Oxford ends the first layer of his narrative shortly after Mary’s ascension to the crown in the summer of 1553. The funeral in 1554 of Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk, marked the passing of a very important figure for John de Vere and his family, and was, no doubt, a crossroad in Edward’s life. So I remain intrigued by the possibility that his parents did send him off to Smith around this time. If you offered this date as a possibility, rather than a solid fact, I’d be much more willing to go along for the ride, to see where your hunches lead.

    Best wishes,

    Marie Merkel

  2. Thanks for the response, Marie; however, you don’t comment on the fact that twice Smith listed one of the rooms in his house at Ankerwycke as “my Lord’s chamber,” the point of my blog. If this “lord” was de Vere, then he must have been with Smith in Berkshire long enough to have a room of his own.

    The only other possibility is that Smith had some other lord in mind. If you have another candidate for the “lord” who had a room named for him where Smith lived from 1553 to 1558, I’d be happy to add that into the equation. Without that I don’t see any reason to ignore the rest of it, the political climate at the time, the utter lack of evidence of what so many important figures were doing, the lack of information from Earl John about anything at all, much less his plans for his son, the lack of evidence for any childhood during the period, and so forth.

    Hopefully more will come to light at some point. So far all the light there is suggests that Earl John did what so many peers did throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, put his heir out to live either with a tutor or in some household where there was a tutor.

    1. Sorry not to have commented on that piece of evidence – not that I didn’t notice it! But while it is suggestive, it doesn’t provide evidence that Oxford went to Smith in 1554, which has been the sticking point for me. Even if Smith had actually named that room “My Lord’s of Oxford’s Chamber”, this wouldn’t confirm that Oxford had occupied that room since 1554. It would confirm his use of that room as of 1561, your first record of Smith’s inventories.

      It seems to me that the burden of proof shouldn’t fall on your readers, approaching your evidence with an open but skeptical mind, to find a better fit for the “My Lord” of Smith’s inventory. That there might not be a better fit does not add greater validity to your reading of the political events in 1554. And if you read what I wrote with care, you’ll see that I certainly didn’t suggest that we should ignore all the fascinating historical material you’ve been considering. I’m simply resisting your urge to posit a “fact” in order to fill in the gaps where we lack documentary evidence. We simply do not know when Earl John actually arranged for his son to live away from home.

  3. You can ask all you want for facts, but the main fact, and fact it is, is that we have very little documentation for this period for anyone, much less a little boy. Conyers Read says that for the entire year of 1553 they have no letters to or from the prolific producer of paper, William Cecil, which should tell us something. This was a period of revolution throughout the entire nation. As the honeymoon period following Mary’s marriage to Philip became the winter holidays, everyone in this story was aware that as soon as the merry-making was over, violence would begin, which it did. Periods of civil violence were classical moments for violence done to political enemies for personal as well as political reasons, when the civil paths to justice of normal times were disrupted and liable to be set aside.

    Finally, it is a fact that by the time Smith was done with the Elizabethan Settlement and had returned to his household in May or June of 1559, that his household had been moved to Hill Hall in Essex. We do not have any hard evidence that that was where de Vere was sent after March of 1559, when the record of his presence at Queens’ College ends, but we do have the evidence of his removal to London in September 1562, following the death of his father, which was followed immediately by Smith’s departure for France, for which Ambassador Throgmorton had been pleading Cecil and the Queen for months, which suggests that, since no other reason has appeared anywhere for this delay, that at least one reason was a concern over what to do with de Vere.

    Thus the designation of the room at Ankerwycke as “my Lord’s chamber” had to relate to the period between when Oxford first came to Smith to whenever it was that the household moved from Ankerwycke to Hill Hall, which had to be at least a year or two after 1556, which was when the paperwork transferring the deed of ownership to Smith was completed, and when the considerable renovations that he made at Hill Hall following this were completed so that the family was finally able to move in. This puts Oxford with Smith long enough before this removal to Hill Hall that Smith would continue to see this room as Oxford’s from 1561 through 1569, during which time Smith continued to own Ankerwycke. The Queen visited his wife there in 1565 while he was still in France.

    The only reason this timing matters is the question whether or not Oxford was with Smith long enough to learn all that Smith had to teach, and to acquire the interest in those areas of knowledge that Shakespeare shares with Smith.

    I suggest that you do as I did, read Mary Dewar and John Strype’s biographies of Smith (his is online); read Conyers Read on this period in Cecil’s life and on Cecil’s struggle to get the nobility a university education; read Bruce McFarlane on the subject of the raising of noble children in the English tradition and the paucity of records about them; read some of the mainstream history of that moment from both the Catholic and the Protestant view, and then see what you think.

  4. ‘Parishes: Egham’, A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 3 (1911), pp. 419-427 at pp. 422-3.


    This states Henry VIII granted Ankerwyke (AKA the manor of Parnish or Ankerwyke Parnish) to Andrew Lord Windsor for life in 1539 with remainder to his sons William, Edmund and Thomas, and that his heir, William Lord Windsor, sold this manor and others to the King for £1000 in 1544.

    It seems likely the designation ‘my Lorde’s chamber’ refers to a chamber once occupied by Lord Windsor. The date of death occurs in the 1569 inventory. It appears reference is being made to what was in the chamber when an inventory was taken after Lord Windsor’s death- in 1543.

    No one’s disputing that Sir Thomas Smith was Oxford’s tutor. However, in the 16th Earl’s inquisition post mortem, Edward’s tutor is stated to have been Thomas Fowle (to whom the 16th Earl gave an annuity). There’s no mention of any annuity granted by the 16th Earl to Sir Thomas Smith, for tutoring or anything else.

  5. All of this is true; it just doesn’t go far enough. First, it’s not possible that a room in Smith’s house could have been named after Ld Windsor since the priory was in disrepair and had been untenanted for some time when Smith bought it from the Crown, tore it down, and used the stone to build himself a 20-room manor house (Dewar 67-8). (We know this because Smith kept track of it in his Latin diary.) So the room in question was entirely new, not one that Windsor could ever have occupied, nor would Smith have wished it, for the Windsors were anything but friends to Smith, or for that matter, to Oxford.

    The inventories in Smith’s notebook were begun in 1561 and repeated in 1569, long after Ld Windsor had anything to do with the property. These list items belonging to Smith, furniture, blankets, pillows, dishes, etc., no doubt because that he was passing them on to his brother George, who moved into Ankerwycke when Sir Thomas and family moved to Hill Hall. Ankerwycke remained in the Smith family until the 19th century. (The inventories list several items of interest, among them a set of virginals, suggesting that Oxford began his study of that instrument well before he moved to Cecil House.)

    In the fall of 1556, servants of the first Ld Windsor’s son, William, 2nd Baron Windsor, appeared at Theydon Mount (Smith’s name for the Hill Hall property in Essex) and attempted to claim the property for one Edward Ferrers, who was married to Windsor’s daughter. (Their claim, later denied, is explained in some detail by Dewar pp 197-98). No one was present but the staff whom they forced to leave, locking the doors on them and taking over two other buildings on the property. This was during the first year that Smith had the title to Hill Hall and had just embarked on the renovations that would take until 1558, so he, his wife and de Vere were not yet living there. The problem with the Windsors dragged on until 1560 when Smith did his best to make it right, though it would reappear during the final year of his life.

    In 1564, Ld Edward, 3rd Baron Windsor, husband of Oxford’s older half-sister (5th son of William Windsor), tried to have the 14-year-old Oxford declared a bastard so he could have his title and heritage. We know how that turned out.

    Then in 1569, two of Ld Andrew Windsor’s sons, Ld Edward’s older brothers (thanks to Mick Clarke for this from the Cockayne Peerage) attacked Ankerwycke, claiming that King Henry had given it to their father for life, so that Smith’s purchase from Edward VI was unlawful. In November they led a company of 20 men into the building, chasing Smith’s household out and leaving three men inside to guard it. Smith, forewarned, brought reinforcements with him, at which point more of Windsor’s men appeared and a battle ensued. Smith took the Windsors to court, the case ending up in Star Chamber. Though results are missing, it seems there was no more trouble with the Windsors over Ankerwyke (Dewar 82-83).

    Then in 1576, the year Smith was dying, Ld William Windsor assisted his daughter’s son in yet another effort to take Hill Hall from Smith. Dewar explains the complicated suit on pages 196-7. On none of these occasions were the Windsors legally justified.

    I’ve covered the issue of the annuity for Thomas Fowle elsewhere, including the fact that the only time it’s possible to put them anywhere near each other is while Edward was at Queens’ College for five months, from November 1558 to March 1559. With the kind help of the archivist at St. John’s I’ve done about as much research on Fowle as is possible from New York. If someone has anything more to add, I’ll be most happy to hear it. As for Smith’s compensation for tutoring Edward, I have dealt with that elsewhere

    Again, just because there’s no record of something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It’s clear that there was a cloud hiding the activities of the Earl of Oxford later in life. What we’re finding out is that that cloud began to develop very early, possibly even as early as his birth. Our question now must be, why was he so hidden? We can hardly expect the answer to such a question to be out in the open, now can we? We’re only going to find it in a rather in depth examination of the history of the period.

    I urge those who are interested in this issue to read Mary Dewar and John Strype’s biographies of Smith (his is online at books.google.com). They offer many leads that I then followed and that have proven fruitful.

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