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.
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.