Oxford’s life in a very small nutshell

Edward de Vere was born into the English peerage at one of the most stressful moments in its, and England’s, history.  Beginning at age four, he was educated by his tutor, the Cambridge scholar and former Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, in Greek and Latin, French and Italian, in theories of government, in English history, Paracelsian medicine, horticulture and astrology, as per the system required by Reformation pedagogues like Erasmus, Juan Vives, and Sir Thomas Elyot.  At twelve, his father’s death sent him to London to live with the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, where he learned horsemanship, dancing, conversational French and how to get things published without using his name.

He shifted from Cecil House to the Court, probably at around seventeen or eighteen, at which time he would have had rooms assigned him in each of the palaces to which the Queen moved the Court every few months.  As the 17th Earl of Oxford in direct line of descent, Edward de Vere was the premiere earl of his time and so would have had pride of place.  As for peers at or near his level, there were 60 when Elizabeth came to power, 25 when she died.  Not all of these were at Court at any one time, that is, except for the Christmas holidays when the entire peerage was expected to put in an appearance.

Plays were needed to entertain the Court at this time, performed in the early years by the various children’s companies and usually at least once per holiday by the adult troup under James Burbage that called itself Leicester’s Men on paper.  That Oxford began almost immediately to provide some of this entertainment seems undeniable if clues in the record are taken seriously.  In his early twenties his name was attached in one way or another to several works by others, suggesting that he was in fact the publisher, some of them containing poetry signed with his name or his initials.  For awhile records were kept of the plays produced at Court, performed by Leicester’s Men or one of the children’s companies, few of which survive, though their titles suggest the interest in Roman history and mythology he acquired from living with Smith.

Bound to the Cecils by marriage

The year he turned 21 he married his guardian’s daughter, Anne Cecil, thus cementing for life his ties to the Cecil family.  If his circumstances at the time are properly evaluated, it’s obvious he had no other choice if he was to stay in the game of English power politics and keep some control of his heritage.  His poetry from this time suggests that during these years his love life was not confined to his marriage.  Along with his success at the tilts he gained the reputation of a dandy, spending lavishly on himself and his friends, through the kind of borrowing as was standard behavior for young courtiers.  He maintained a coterie of friends, some of dubious reputation such as his cousin Henry Howard and Howard’s Catholic associates.  Meanwhile his friend the Earl of Rutland, following a brief continental sojourn, married and left Court for a life centered on his family holdings in the country.

In 1575 he was finally allowed his own year abroad.  Leaving shortly before he turned twenty-five, he spent some time in Paris where, travelling with an entourage of a dozen or so, he was welcomed at the Court of Henry III, then took off for Italy, where he set up housekeeping in Venice, travelling on his own from there to locations in the Mediterranean and other Italian cities.  Returning to England in April 1576, he was disturbed by rumors that his wife had been unfaithful, giving him an excuse to cut himself off from the Cecils and take rooms somewhere in London where he was free to continue the independent life he’d become accustomed to in Italy.

Birth of the London Stage

Weeks after his return the first successful purpose-built yearround public theater, a big round amphitheater that held upwards of 3,000 at a sitting was built by Burbage in the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, northest of the City, in time for that year’s summer season.  Within months was created the second successful London theater, the private indoor stage known to history as the First Blackfriars Theater.  Purportedly a rehearsal stage for a school for the boy choristers, it soon became the first indoor private theater for the well-to-do residents of the West End.  These two theaters enabled the actors to cover two important communities, at Burbage’s big public stage in Norton Folgate, two to three thousand at a time; in the little private stage at Blackfriars, the most influential members of the London Court and legal community.

Both built in liberties, areas set aside by medieval monarchs to protect their pet monasteries from the surrounding city magistrates, here Oxford and his actors were able to function more freely, at least for a time, than at the theater inns or the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral, the first under the jurisdiction of the puritanical London mayors, the second under the intransigent Bishop of London.  The immense appetite of Londoners for entertainment allowed holiday comedies written for the Court to migrate to the public audience. Thus was born the London Stage in the late 1570s and ’80s.


In 1581 Oxford got in trouble with the Court community, first with the Catholics for turning State’s evidence on his former friends, chiefly his cousin Henry Howard, for plotting against the Queen, then with the Queen for fathering a child born to one of her Majesty’s Maids of Honor.  Imprisoned in the Tower, then banished indefinitely from Court, this appears to be the period when he first turned from comedies to works of deeper significance intended for the educated legal audience of Westminster, known today as London’s West End.  This led to trouble for the Blackfriars stage.  Efforts by the landlord to dissolve its lease succeeded in 1584, though in all likelihood, protected by its Privy Council patron, Lord Hunsdon, it may have continued, perhaps less blatantly, until 1590 when the lease expired.

Throughout the 1580s he wrote plays, among them the originals of most of the history plays, for the Queen’s Men, the first Crown company, organized by Walsingham to nationalize the coastal communities in advance of a possible Spanish attack.  It was also during the 1580s that he and his cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, created the periodical press by publishing a series of pamphlets, signed with pseudonyms and the names of distant standins, entertaining in nature, that were the first of their kind, and that created a new reading audience, giving work to printers and food for conversation in drawing rooms and pubs.

The Cecils attack the Stage and Press

Following the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, the London Stage and commercial press fell victim to the Cecils’ outrage over violations of Reformation protocol by Marlowe’s plays, the Mar-prelate pamphlets against the bishops, and the Nashe/Harvey pamphlet duel, Oxford and Bacon’s way of keeping their favorite printers in bread and butter.  Over a period of six years, from the death of Walsingham in 1590 to Robert Cecil’s appointment to Walsingham’s office of  Secretary of State in 1596, Robert, with help from his father, waged war on the London Stage and press.

Anne Cecil having died in 1588, Burghley allows Oxford’s debts to the  Crown to come due, leaving him without the credit he needs to keep his actors and musicians in work.  By 1593 the Court’s chief entertainers, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men, vanish from Court records.  Marlowe’s murder in 1593 by Cecil’s agents, followed in 1594 by the murder of his patron, Lord Strange, leave the actors at Henslowe’s Rose without a playwright or a patron.

Early in 1594 the Privy Council patrons of the London Stage came to the rescue.  With the creation of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, in 1594, the actors were back in business, with Oxford revising his early plays to fit the temper of the times in the style we now associate with Shakespeare.  Early in 1596, the loss of their big stage in Shoreditch prompts Burbage, with Hunsdon’s help, to purchase the Old Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars for a stage that will give them access to the West End community of lawyers, weathly peers, and every three or four years, the MPs that gather there for one of the Queen’s rare parliaments.

Cecil ups the ante

Immediately following Cecil’s appointment as Secretary of State in July of 1596, four heavy blows, one after another, threaten to break the Company: the death two weeks later of their major protector, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon; the almost immediate appointment of Cecil’s father-in-law, Lord Cobham, to Hunsdon’s office of Lord Chamberlain; the denial of their use of their new Blackfriars Stage by order of the Privy Council, now dominated by the Cecils and Cobham; and the death of James Burbage during that winter’s theater season.  Some of the actors of other companies fight back with a play titled The Isle of Dogs (Marlowe’s murder had taken place just across the river from the Isle of Dogs) whereupon Cecil closes all the theaters, sending all London actors on the road.

The actors strike back

Returning in October to a London filled with parliamentarians and with no stage with which to entertain them, the actors and their playwright retaliate by producing and publishing a new version of Richard III in which the evil King, performed by Burbage’s son Richard in some nobleman’s hall in the West End, makes it obvious that the protagonist is intended as a metaphor for England’s new Secretary of State, who, due to his recent appointment, now dominates the sessions of Parliament.

Though Cecil’s reputation was permanently damaged by the combined performance and publication of the play, he continues his Richard-like climb to total power by partnering with Oxford’s old enemy, Henry Howard.  Following the overthrow of Essex and the accession of King James, Cecil, however hated, climbs under James to a position of almost supreme power, gaining titles, offices and perquisites as he goes.  Following his death in 1612, his reputation is torn to shreds by a volley of libelous limericks, many associating him with Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Final years

With his two worst enemies in power, Oxford, protected by the Pembroke brothers, managed to live on for anything from one to five more years after James’s accession, during which time he polished his masterpieces, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Lear for his Company, now titled the King’s Men, with which they continued to entertain the Court of King James and the public, finally being allowed the use of their theater in 1608, possibly shortly after his death.

Close to two decades following Oxford’s death, the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes, finally were able to publish his collected works, but only by making deals with the relatives of those Court figures he had satirized (one of them his own daughter, married to the younger Earl of Pembroke), by continuing to leave his identity out of the story.  The fictional authorship was maintained by the Company until the closing of the theaters during the Civil War.

When his works went into a decline with the return of the Stage two decades later, the issue of their authorship paled, only to return in the 19th century with the rise of public education, lending libraries, and the publication by a more enlightened world in their original language.  Although there are hints that those aristocratic families with connections to the Oxford earls were aware of his authorship well into the 19th century, whatever proof may once have existed, was either lost or remains buried in the archives, where hopefully someday an intelligent scholarly community with a sufficient interest in history will bring it to light.

8 thoughts on “Oxford’s life in a very small nutshell

  1. What a wonderful synopsis Stephanie.
    One question: Why did Oxford take the risk of an illegal visit to Bruges (other than to maybe evade his wedding to Anne Cecil which was eventually rescheduled)? I know he was threatened by the Queen with treason if he didn’t return immediately.

    1. The answer to that is easy, Lynn: I don’t know. Clearly there was some reason for the trip. Perhaps someday European archives will provide an answer. It could have been some mission for the Queen, it could have been an act of person rebellion. There are so many unanswered questions. When we’ve gotten further along identifying what moment in time fits with each play, we’ll have more to go on. Meanwhile there are so many paths untrodden that will clearly lead to more understanding, I hope that you and others equally interested will pursue some of these.

  2. This is the movie that should have been made. What an abstract for a marvelous screen play, especially the actors strike back with Richard III. It was in Anonymous but they so butchered history with the date and focusing on the Essex rebellion it damaged the credibility greatly.

    Over at Hank’s site, it has been mentioned that the History professors are quite interested in authorship and take it more seriously as a subject of study. It is the English and literature department that has all the fundamentalists.

    It might be worth looking to hook up with History professionals because your understanding of this period vis a vis the theater is so original and great. I think they would be fascinated.

  3. Thanks Ken. I’m in no position to do any “hooking up,” but if I can get my book published (once it’s finished) perhaps that will help. In many ways it’s a plea for historians to join the discussion. I would think it would be a great move on the part of some energetic English history major, located in or near London and its archives, to follow up on some of its leads and present the world with a true picture of Elizabeth’s Court, one that includes Shakespeare and shows his relationship with historic figures like Bacon, Raleigh, Burghley, etc.

    1. I wrote to Hank on his blog after reading your latest post and Richard Waugaman Is connected to some history people who have expressed interest and believe authorship is a legitimate academic pursuit. He wrote “The hypocrisy that Ken correctly condemns among many Stratfordians stands in contrast with how other academics view the authorship question. Yesterday, a friend invited me to have lunch with a group of classicists at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in DC. They all smiled warmly when they learned about my work, and they said unresolved authorship attribution questions are commonplace in their field.

      Then I had dinner with Harvard’s history professor Don Ostrowski and some fellow Georgetown professors. Don had just given a seminar on authorship questions about Shakespeare and about Kurbskii (a 16th century Russian). The five other history professors at the dinner expressed puzzlement as to why English professors don’t just treat the Shakespeare authorship question as an issue open to scholarly research and debate.”

      He followed with “Don Ostrowski taught History at Penn State, and now at Harvard. He was teaching a course on “Historical Controversies.” He added the Shakespeare Authorship Question to his syllabus after the second edition of a book on 100 famous people replaced “Shakespeare” with “Edward de Vere.” So he started looking into it, and he thinks it’s a valid scholarly question.”

      I touted your scholarship and very deep understanding of the period to Hank, which I think he knows.
      “I think you and Stephanie along with Richard should hook up with the History people. Stephanie is marvelous at connecting the dots between literature, the emergence of the theater and power politics. Her in depth essays are remarkable. I think History people would be startled, delighted, and fascinated. Go for it, if Richard has an opening. Get a meet together.

      Could change history.”

      Two things. Hank has had a very public career with this so he can be a good “front person” to deal with media and lend his expertise with the Strat community. Richard has the “ins” with some History people to get a ball rolling on a larger scale. You bring a wealth of insight, detail and understanding to the power relationships of the stage, writers and political period. So I don’t think this falls on you alone but together you three with maybe Stritmatter would make a tremendous team. All of you could collate the research for History people such as Bob Brazil’s great work on the publishers and printers.

      The other. Finish the book. I am writing a book on dreams and I was advised that to publish is vital. The person, a doctor, told me “once you publish you are considered an expert in the field”. You might even suspend new posts for a while to write the book.

      I very strongly urge you to work together. It takes the burden off you because as I said each of you brings a distinct strength to the table. Not only do I think the History profession will salivate over this, but I think it might end up being one of the great breakthroughs in this process, similar to Looney.

      I graduated with a degree in history. I love and am fascinated by it and your work (and Hank’s) blows my mind. If I feel that way, others will too. I really think you guys can make history. There is so much that has not been truly considered.

  4. P.S. You might as a team end up presenting often at conferences. Once the door gets opened, who knows where it will go or who it brings in? A powerful wind with an opening can do wonders. At this stage in our lives it is worth the shot. This might be a huge opportunity to get a serious consideration of the entire picture into the mainstream and bypass the Literature resistance.

  5. Thanks Ken. I’m working on the book every day. It’s a challenge, partly because so much has to be included, how much is enough but not too much? Much as I love Shakespeare, it’s the amazing history of his effort in the teeth of the Reformation repression that has me fascinated.

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