Life at Cecil House

London calling

However restless were both Edward and Smith and however eager for change, when it finally happened it may have come as a shock. News arrived late the following August, either that the 16th Earl was failing, or that he had already died.  If Edward spent any time at Hedingham earlier that summer he may have seen signs that his father was ill.  Smith certainly must have, that is, if there were any signs.  John de Vere made a second will in July, a sure sign that he knew he might be facing death, but Edward, being young, may not have noticed, and Smith was always a little dense when it came to situations that he didn’t wish to confront.

First there was the elaborate funeral, a long drawn-out feudal ritual during which, dressed to the teeth in heavy mourning clothes, he was forced to sit for hours beside his mother in the August heat, both of them silent and numb with shock as they accepted the sympathies of mourners from all over Essex, London and Suffolk.  When it was finally over and he was allowed to stand and move about, then came a seemingly endless dinner, endless speeches and toasts.  Following a sleepless night came the journey to London where, he was informed, as a ward of the Crown he would henceforth be living with the Queen’s Principal Secretary, Sir William Cecil, and his family.

It must have been a tired and dispirited twelve-year-old who finally arrived at Cecil House after three slow days on the road, enveloped in the dust of a hundred and forty men on horseback, all dressed in mourning livery of black and tawny, their horses draped in ceremonial black trappings.  Stopping along the way to eat and sleep at the homes of his father’s supporters, he was forced to listen to their solemn devoirs and respond in kind, sleep in strange rooms, eat strange food, and endure the poorly concealed mutterings of those who saw his future guardian as a power-hungry upstart.


The shock wore off eventually, but once again he had been suddenly displaced from what was familiar without warning or preparation.  He was never close enough to his father to mourn him as someone loved and lost, but it can be even worse in some ways to lose a father who isn’t close, as it adds to the shock the loss of any possibility of ever getting to know him at a future time.  The mood of those of his father’s retainers who accompanied Edward to London would not have been encouraging either.  They foresaw that hard times were about to fall on the Oxford earldom.  With the heir so young, and now in the hands of the Crown, what would happen to the estate?  To their annuities?  Their privileges?  Though the evidence is unclear, what is clear is that to all extents and purposes, the 600-year-old Oxford earldom was tottering.  Nor would the young earl be the man to save it.

Life at Cecil House.

It couldn’t have been long before it became clear to Oxford that there were many advantages to living in London.  Cecil had a library two or three times the size of Smith’s; it would take months before he could familiarize himself with all it held.  His wife Mildred was a Greek scholar with a Greek library of her own.  Most interesting may have been the collection of old manuscripts that Cecil was acquiring from scholars like John Bale and John Leland, who were making it their business to salvage as much as they could from the libraries of the ruined monasteries.  Here was something new and different: ancient Anglo-Saxon, beautifully inscribed on strips and rolls of parchment, stirring all the excitement that such a find can engender in an artist and an antiquarian.  Encouraged by his new tutor Laurence Nowell, he began puzzling out the strange old figures, some of them clearly poetry, and of a very different sort than what he was used to.

The West End

Salisbury Pub, Covent Garden

Today, all signs of the existence of Cecil House remain only in the names of streets and much later buildings crowded together in the bustling district known as Covent Garden.  Purchased by Cecil during his time as Secretary to the Duke of Somerset, then enlarged and renovated into an impressive example of modern Tudor extravagance, it stood across the Strand from the Savoy and Somerset House.

Exeter House, late 17th cent

Still unpaved at that time, the Strand (meaning “the shore”) was no more than a wide path that connected Westminster and Whitehall to the west––where Cecil plyed his trade as Queen’s Principal Secretary––with, to the east, the bustling metropolis of London, where ships from foreign nations clustered on the far side of London bridge.  With traders arriving from all over the world and goods from all parts of England, London was filled with all the noisy activity and excitement that his young heart craved.  As an adult, Oxford would be one of the first peers to live in the City yearround.

Between the ocean and Windsor there was still only one bridge that crossed the Thames, but the great London Bridge of nursery rhyme fame, lined on both sides by three and four story buildings with shops facing on the street, was more like just another city street to those crossing it, an extension of the ancient north/south thoroughfare that, coming up through Kent from Canterbury and Dover, passed through the City to head north towards Cambridge and East Anglia.  In the 1580s, Oxford would make his home on this same ancient road just past where it crossed through the city wall at Bishopsgate, north of the East End, one of the seven medieval gates in the wall built centuries earlier to protect London from invading Danes and Vikings.
For those who lived or worked west of the city proper the bridge was much too far east for frequent use.  For them, the south bank was best attained by means of one of the dozens of ferries in constant use by the ferrymen whose job it was to row passengers back and forth.  To cross to the bankside, Oxford and his friends would take such a ferry from across the Strand at the river stairs by Somerset House (just in front of Cecil House on the far left), to see shows at the bear-baiting arena (left of center with a flag), the older youths perhaps to sneak in a visit to one of the “single women” who, because they inhabited tenements owned by the Bishop of Winchester, were known as “Winchester geese.”

Besides bear-baiting, the arena offered a vaudville style menu of wrestling and fencing matches, performances of horsemanship, archery contests, and exhibitions of gymnastics interspersed with antic routines by clowns and comedy teams.  There were no playhouses yet, though within the City were several theater inns (the Bull and the Cross Keyes) where plays were performed during holidays and law terms.  It’s doubtful that Cecil would have allowed his young charge enough freedom to attend these, for plays at the inns were rowdy events where naïve young lords would be all too vulnerable to experienced pickpockets and prostitutes.

For the first time in his life Oxford had friends. That is, he had companions provided by Cecil.  Since all were considerably older than himself, their company, though welcome, may have been somewhat daunting to a boy raised without companions of any sort. It’s not clear which of them actually boarded at Cecil House, and which had rooms at the Inns of Court nearby, where most of them were studying.  No doubt all were welcome at Cecil’s table, to make use of his library, and to eat on ordinary days and, at times when Master Secretary played host to foreign ambassadors and other dignitaries, helping to serve.

Gathered originally perhaps to serve as companions to Cecil’s son Thomas, these young men were the core of what his household biographer later termed Cecil’s “little academy.” (There doesn’t seem to be any other time in Cecil’s career that this term would fit.)  All were from six to 15 years older than himself, but after so many years with Smith, Edward may actually have been more comfortable with grown men than with boys his own age.  Also, by now he was no longer Edward de Vere, or his juvenile honorific, Lord Bulbeck, he was  already the Earl of Oxford and so however young and untried, he outranked all the others, whatever their ages.  Closest in age would have been the budding poet Arthur Brooke, the teenaged cousin of the Cobham brothers, sons of Cecil’s close friend George Brooke, Lord Cobham, whose City mansion lay a short walk from Cecil House up the Strand, just past Ludgate and the city wall, within the Liberty of Blackfriars.

Studies at Cecil House

From the study plan drawn up by Cecil for his young ward it seems clear that with Cecil the accent would be on those skills necessary for a courtier, skills that Oxford could not have acquired with the rough-edged Smith.  It was all well and good to be steeped in the Greek and Latin classics, and to read modern French, but for the Court Oxford would need to able to speak it properly.  He would need to excel at the kind of horsemanship that was required for the tilts.  He would need to be able to read prick song and to sing extempore from a sheet of notation the madrigals that were just coming into fashion.  He would need to know the latest dances and acquire a passing acquaintance with the popular musical instruments of the day, the lute, the recorder, and the virginals––all this before he could make his formal debut at Court.

Music to soothe the savage breast

Cecil could have had no idea of the intensity with which Oxford would take to all of these, but most eagerly to music and dance.  During the years with his tutor he couldn’t have acquired much much training in either.  It’s clear from Smith’s letters that he had no interest in music, perhaps no ear for it.  Despite his oratorical skills and his love of Homer, based on his own attempts, he had no ear for the verbal music of poetry, at least, not for English poetry.  As for dancing, as far as Smith was concerned it was sheer effeminate frippery.

But, wonder of wonders, at Cecil House the day began with dancing, taught by the Court dancing master, Richard Frith, who maintained a rehearsal space in the Liberty of Blackfriars.  Dancing requires music, and music (in those days) required musicians.  Oxford’s dancing lessons would have been accompanied by Court musicians, among them perhaps one or more of the Bassanos, foremost among the musicians at Court.

Oxford took to music like a duck to water.  He became an avid student, practising until he was competent on several instruments and writing songs of his own.  Most of his poems from this period can be better read as song lyrics.  In learning and playing music, all constraints of rank, place, age and seniority, all concerns over protocols, fell away.  So long as no others were present, he was accepted as they would accept any young neophite; the conversation never stopped when he entered the room where they were rehearsing, but continued as though he were one of them.

Intelligent, witty, full of fun, easy-going; the only thing that ever fazed them was a wrong note or an untuned instrument. They seemed to live for making each other and other people happy. How different from the fawning courtiers, the affectless servants, the judgemental puritans, the humorless scholars, the serious young equerries, the Osrics of the Court.  Here when he said or did the wrong thing, the only reaction was laughter!  Instinctively he hid all this from Cecil, who, like Smith, had fixed ideas about what an earl should do and be.  One word from him and the fun would be over.

1563: a turning point

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s