Evidence for Oxford’s years with Smith

Apart from the biographies that launched this long research project, among the hundreds, perhaps thousands of books and articles I’ve read, three stand out as watersheds.  These were, in order of discovery: Mary Dewar’s biography: Sir Thomas Smith: A Tudor Intellectual in Office (1964); K.B. McFarlane’s The Nobility of Later Medieval England (1950s), and Ellen Winner’s Gifted Children (1996).  Dewar opened the door to Oxford’s childhood and early education; McFarlane provided the historic traditions for such a childhood; and Winner’s requirements for the education of a genius confirmed what the others suggested.  A great deal of evidence was culled from Lawrence Stone’s invaluable The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500 -1800 (1977).  These are by no means the only sources, but they are the ones that first brought this picture into focus.  Those who have reasons to question my scenario might find it profitable to examine these solid and reputable sources.

Regarding the lack of records for Oxford’s childhood, the point must be made that throughout English history, records relating to children, even to noble children, are extremely sparce.  After detailing the knowledge and literary ability of the nobility during the reigns of Henry IV, V and VI, historian McFarlane asks:

What education did [these lords] in fact receive, when and where? Do their private archives not supply any of the answers we need?  Some of them are . . . voluminous enough[2]. . . .  Have these nothing to say about the education of the young lords and ladies of the family?  Very little, since most of the accounts are devoted to other things.  Children appear only rarely . . . .” (243).

First: sparsity of records relating to children of all classes may be largely due to the extremely high rates of infant mortality (Stone Family 68).  Beyond notices of their births and deaths, most left no marks in the record until well into their teens or twenties.   It’s almost as though people didn’t really exist until they’d proven themselves capable of surviving birth and early childhood.

Second: de Vere was born just as the fight between the Reformation Protestants and Catholics hit his home county with full and bloody force, launching one of those periods in history when official record-keeping tends to fail and private letters, if sent at all, can end up in the fireplace.  Right about the time that the Countess of Oxford got pregnant with de Vere, the local gentry and their servants rose in rebellion against the religious changes being forced on them by the 1549 Act of Uniformity.  Known as Kett’s Rebellion, it claimed the life of his uncle, the young Earl of Sheffield, his father’s ward and husband of his father’s sister Anne.  The uprising was quashed by the military action of another member of the Privy Council, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, who used the power it brought him to organize the palace coup that ousted Somerset a few months later––and Secretary of State Sir Thomas Smith with him.

Born the following April, the infant heir would have been left to the protection of women while the Earl and his in-laws dealt with the political extremes of the Northumberland administration and, following the grisly death of the young king in 1553, the reign of terror unleased by Mary Tudor’s marriage to Philip of Spain.

That Earl John was personally inclined towards a Protestant world view can be seen by the fact that, shortly before his death a decade later, he would invite the fire-eating radical priest, John Bale, to perform his play King Johan before the newly-crowned Elizabeth Tudor.  So, although Mary returned to the earl the perquisites that Somerset had taken from him, and he and his Countess dutifully performed their traditional roles at Court, the Queen’s Catholic advisors were wary, and the earl and his Protestant supporters had plenty of cause to be nervous.

However tolerant the Queen appeared that first year, as soon as she married Philip, those reformers who had not already fled knew they were facing a potential disaster. Over the Christmas holidays of 1554-55, as London church choirs sang carols, and mummers blew horns to the beat of hammers building gallows at Smithfield, those who had not yet fled were busy making plans to save themselves and, if possible, their properties.

Thus it must surely have been that William Cecil, who was privy to Philip’s plans through his friendship with Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal de la Pole, arranged with his former Cambridge tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, to have the heir to the Oxford earldom, England’s most politically sensitive shire, brought to him over the snowbound roads (this was the period known as the Little Ice Age) perhaps by sleigh, possibly as little more than an emergency measure until a more permanent placement could be found.

Whatever Cecil’s arrangement with Smith, it would have been by handshake, nothing on paper, all communications by word of mouth, either by courier or more likely, face to face.  The less anyone knew of the whereabouts of the heir to the Oxford earldom the better.  As soon as the holidays were over the burnings began.

That Dewar knew whereof she wrote when she noted this as the moment that de Vere was removed from Essex and transferred to Smith, conveniently located as far as possible from Essex and “the Bloody Bishop” William Bonner, makes sense.  As history clearly shows, moments of great political upheaval are dangerous for vulnerable heirs; de Vere had no brothers to take his place; and the 16th Earl, like all magnates, had plenty of enemies.

No one knew better than Shakespeare the dangers that could threaten underage peers.  In four of the plays that include underage peers as characters, they are under a similar threat: most notably in King John where he inserted little Arthur’s story into the chronicles’ account.  As heir to the throne, Arthur was in the same kind of danger that his own caregivers may have feared.  In Macbeth, it’s the children of Macduff, who meet their fate offstage.  In Titus, it’s little Lucius, frightened by his brutally mutilated aunt, even as stories about the brutal murder of the husband of one of Oxford’s aunts must have frightened him as a child.  Finally, there’s the murder of the little princes by Richard III, which, though it happens offstage, was then and still is seen by history as the royal criminal’s most heinous crime.

The foundation for this scenario:

1)  First there is Mary Dewar’s unqualified statement (page 77 of her biography of Smith) that de Vere came to his tutor in December 1554, which, although her citation does not fully support it, suggests that during her research she found more specific data, but having failed to note the precise souce, relied instead on a less specific letter. Smith’s tutelage of de Vere was, after all, nothing more to her purpose than a detail that helped affirm his status.

2)  December 1554 was the most likely moment in time for the heir to the Oxford earldom to be hidden from his father’s enemies as the countryside, covered with snow, was devoid of travellers, while his home county prepared for the fury that was about to be unleashed by Mary’s bishops.  If John Foxe is to be believed, upwards of 300 were burned at the stake or hanged in Essex alone, with hundreds more imprisoned, their titles and estates used as rewards for Mary’s supporters.

3)  Most convincing as evidence of de Vere’s years with Smith are the inventories of the rooms and their furnishings at Ankerwycke that Smith jotted in two places in his notebooks, now located in the Old Library at his alma mater, Queens’ College Cambridge.  In one, labled #49, Smith has designated a room on the second floor as “My Lordes chambre,” in the other, #83, it’s labelled “My L’s chambre.”

The only possible “Lord” who could have had a room of his own in Smith’s house at that time was de Vere; titled “Baron of Badlesmere and Bulbecke” from birth, he would have been referred to as “Lord” from earliest childhood.  Although Smith’s brother George and his family were the occupants of Ankerwycke in 1569 when Smith and his wife were living at Hill Hall, Smith continued to keep rooms there until 1577 when he left it to George in his will.

4)  Smith’s library list of 1566 gives the titles of a large portion of the works that scholars agree were Shakespeare’s sources, while Shakespeare’s demonstrated knowledge of abstruse legal, medical, and astrological terms, together with his use of gardening, distilling, and hawking metaphors, mirror his tutor’s lifelong interests in these areas to a degree that surpass any efforts to dismiss them as either commonplace or coincidental.

5)  The dates make it clear that the five months that de Vere spent at Smith’s alma mater, Queens’ College Cambridge, from November 1558 to March 1559, were arranged so that his tutor would be free to help William Cecil prepare for the Elizabethan Religious Settlement in time for Elizabeth Tudor’s coronation and her first Parliament.  It should also be clear that what was preventing Cecil and the Queen from sending Smith to France to explain the Elizabethan Settlement to the French––as the current ambassador, Francis Throckmorten, was begging be done––was Smith’s role in raising de Vere, since as soon as the death of the 16th Earl gave Cecil occasion to bring the 12-year-old to live with him in London, it was only a matter of days before Smith took off for France.

Although no hard evidence has yet appeared to certify that de Vere lived with Smith from March 1559 until his arrival at Cecil House in 1562, neither has any fact yet surfaced to suggest that he was living anywhere else.  Common sense suggests that he simply returned to Smith, now living at Hill Hall.  That de Vere lived there with Smith is the longstanding belief of neighbors who live near Hill Hall today.  Local traditions like these can be just as trustworthy as anything written on paper.

Finally, although we have no “hard” evidence for the length of time that de Vere lived with Smith, that it was substantial is indicated in at least three extant letters: one written by Burghley to Smith in France shortly after the boy’s removal to Cecil House in which he asks Smith’s help in locating tutors for Oxford in conversational French and horsemanship (Strype 19-20); one written in 1574 from Cecil to Walsingham, then Ambassador to France, during the period when Oxford was in trouble with the Queen for dashing off to the Continent without permission, in which he asks Walsingham to press his friends on the Privy Council to vouch for Oxford, adding that he “doubts not” that “Mr. Secretary Smith will remember his old love towards the Earl when he was his scholar” (Nelson 115); and one from Smith to Burghley written during Oxford’s rejection of the Cecils following his return from Italy, in which he refers to the love he bears Oxford, “because he was brought up in my house” (25).   To be “brought up” by someone meant the same thing in 1576 that it means today.

Also supporting these dates is the background history, the potential danger to a future Earl of Oxford, born to a Protestant peer, during the invasion of England by the son of the mighty Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, by way of his marriage to the Catholic Queen of England.  Philip II, soon to be King of Spain, was no friend to the Protestant nobility, and it was with his marriage to the English Queen that the burnings, hanging, tortures, and other horrors were set in motion at exactly the time when Mary Dewar claims that young de Vere was brought to live with Smith.  Surely this was for his protection, the same reason that those involved left us no documentation.

Under any other circumstances than those that surround all discussion of Oxford and his candidacy for authorship of the Shakespeare canon, this would be more than enough for traditional history. It should certainly be enough for Oxfordians.

A blog on this topic with a number of comments can be found here.


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