It is widely assumed that William Shakespeare was born and died on St. George’s Day, the 23rd of April. However, this too is a misapprehension on behalf of the majority of conventional scholars and so-called authorities on William Shakespeare’s birth credentials. During the Elizabethan era and well before that England employed the Julian calendar which meant that their dates were at least eleven days short (“The Devil’s Dozen”). Now Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford was reputedly born on the 11th of April, which means that he probably was actually born near or on the 23rd April (on the cusp of Aries and Taurus), leaving the Stratford Shakespeare to have been born a Taurean and not an Aries. As always, the devil is in the detail. England did not adopt the Gregorian calendar till 1752. During his entire life the Stratford Shakspere had not read or owned a single book (not even a Bible), which is to say all the better if he was illiterate then he would not be able to write anything for posterity which would have revealed who the real author was of the 1623 Folio of plays. Is it not strange that no one dedicated any literary work to such an eminent and prolific playwright? His death, (which coincides with the Spanish writer, Miguel Cervantes) presumably again on the 23rd of April, actually took place at the beginning of May, again due to calendrical errors and misapprehensions by biographers searching for some symbolic synchronicity in his birth and death. Needless to say the unexpected death of the Stratford actor, William Shakspere needs re-examining as he could so easily have been “eliminated” by the authorities wishing to keep the identity of the author a secret.
The biography of the 17th Earl of Oxford has been chronicled in several other recent publications. This article is a resume of the literary commendations, tributes and the books or literary works dedicated to him during his life. Edward de Vere’s involvement in literary and dramatic projects is well-documented from an early age and it is a bizarre twist of fate that academic researchers, or for that matter Shakespearean scholars should have simply overlooked his vast contribution to Elizabethan theatre and poetry. Although popular and well-known amongst historians he is mentioned obliquely two or three times in “Shakespeare’s England”. If they had been aware of the depth and strength of that involvement then perhaps he would not have been omitted from many compendiums of English literature. Despite the Earl having written plays and poetry from an early age, some suggest from the age of twelve, then perhaps the “Cambridge Guide to Literature in English” would not have omitted him entirely from that particular catalogue. A great number of Elizabethan poets, playwrights and authors can certainly be found there including Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and Sir Phillip Sidney. However, not all 20th century anthologies or collections failed to acknowledge the Earl of Oxford’s passion and cultural contribution to English literary history. The “New Oxford Book of 16th Century Verse” does contain a small proportion of his poetry, not realising of course that it was merely the tip of a huge iceberg. Indeed, some of his poetry is listed simply under the term: “anonymous”. The Earl returned from his European tour of France, Germany and Italy soon after his marriage to Anne Cecil. He was extremely enthused with the techniques of Italian drama (Commedia d’elle Arte), and together with his knowledge of English, Greek and Roman History he mounted the great English Cultural Renaissance single-handedly and led the construction of the Globe Theatre and began to patronise painters, playwrights and poets in London. But in all of his future endeavours he preferred to remain in the background. There was a brief period when he was enamoured of assuming a literary profile, but his ancestral status as tutelary Lord Great Chamberlain eventually led him to assume a “shadow existence”. However, as many people now know Edward de Vere was the head of a secret literary fraternity run from a medium-sized mansion near the Thames named Fisher’s Folly, having recruited the poet and playwright, John Lyly (the author of “Euphues, His England”) as his personal secretary.
Edward de Vere was born at the ancestral home of Castle Hedingham on the 12th of April, 1550 (Old Style Julian Calendar). Oxford’s family ancestry go all the way back to the Norman invasion of 1066, much of his estates were granted to the de Vere’s by William the Conqueror. When the Queen was 28 years old she was entertained by his father John de Vere at Castle Hedingham when Edward was merely 8 years old. When his father died mysteriously, Edward became a ward of court and was “fostered” by William Cecil, Lord Burghley (State Treasurer), a close advisor to the Queen. His earliest tutor was Sir Thomas Smith, followed by Roger Ascham, Dr. John Dee and his uncle Arthur Golding. His other uncle was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey who was responsible, like Wyatt of introducing the Italian sonnet form into England. Edward de Vere received a B.A. from Cambridge University in August 1564 and a honorary M.A. from Oxford University in September 1566. He undertook study of the law in February 1567 when he entered the Inns of Court, known also for its early student theatrical performances. Oxfordians thus have an answer for how Shakespeare learned the law so intricately and its vocabulary so extensively. In 1569, a poet and translator, dedicating a work to the Earl of Oxford, wrote:
“I do not deny that in many matters, I mean matters of learning, a nobleman ought to have a sight; but to be too much addicted that way, I think it is not good.”
In 1584, a dedication to him declared:
For who marketh better than he
The seven turning flames of the sky?
Or hath read more of the antique;
Hath greater knowledge of the tongues?
Or understandeth sooner the sounds
Of the learner to love music?
(quoted. in Ward 50)
Lord Burghley wrote to the Earl of Rutland in 1571 to point out:
“And surely, my Lord, by dealing with him I find that which I often heard of your Lordship, that there is much more in him of understanding than any stranger to him would think. And for my part I find that whereof I take comfort in his wit and knowledge grown by good observation.”
In May 1564, his uncle, Arthur Golding dedicated “Th’ Abridgement of the Histories of Trogus Pompeius” to his 14-year-old nephew, Edward de Vere noting Oxford’s unusually in-depth interest in both ancient history and current political tides.
Edward de Vere’s uncle and personal tutor, Arthur Golding publishes a translation of “Ovid’s Metamorphoses” in 1567, dedicated to him presumably for his collaboration with the Earl or as a result of his request. In 1569 his mother dies and Thomas Underdowne dedicated his translation of the “Æthiopian History of Heliodorus of Emesa” to the Earl of Oxford which would have been a good literary source for the play Othello. On 22nd April 1569 the Earl of Oxford received his first nomination as member of the Knight’s Garter. Sometime around 1570 an uncertain Edmund Elviden, a gentleman, dedicated to the Earl of Oxford “The most excellent and plesant metaphoricall historie of Pesistratus and Catanea”. On the 20th October 1571, his uncle, Arthur Golding dedicated a third book to the Earl entitled, “The Psalms of David and others”, with M. John Calvin’s “Commentaries”.
Anxious to see some military action Oxford accompanied the Earl of Sussex to Scotland in 1570 to put down the Northern Rebellion.
But he was as a young man a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who realising his enormous personal skills of dancing, jousting, horse-riding and personal charisma preferred he remain in England even though there were wars to be fought in Europe.
Around this time he was betrothed to be wed to the 14-year old daughter of Lord Burghley, Anne Cecil. But he failed to turn up on the wedding day and was admonished by Queen Elizabeth, when he escaped briefly to France and was obliged to return. De Vere did finally marry Anne but refused to acknowledge her child as being his, suggesting that he was abroad at the time she became pregnant. During his absence the anonymous collection of poetry “A Hundreth Sundry Flowers” was edited and printed, which cryptically named Elizabeth as a consort of several courtiers. Towards the 1570s, Oxford provided entertainment for the Queen in the form of plays and served as a patron of acting companies and of writers such as John Lyly.
On 1st of January 1572, the Gentleman Pensioner Thomas Bedingfield dedicated his “Cardanus’ Comfort” to the Earl of Oxford, this being a translation from the Latin of “De Consolatione Libri Tres” by the Italian mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano. On the 3rd January 1572 Oxford wrote a Latin epistle to Bartholomew Clerke’s “De Curiali”, a translation into Latin of Baldassare Castiglione’s “Il Cortegiano”, (The Courtier) and in the same year Thomas Twyne dedicated his Breviary of Britain to the Earl of Oxford, noting that ‘your Honour taketh singular delight’ in ‘books of geography, histories and other good learning’.
In 1574 the Earl of Oxford’s surgeon, a certain George Baker, dedicated to him two translations namely, “The Composition or Making of . . . Oleum Magistrale, and The Third Book of Galen”. Again in 1577 John Brooke dedicated to Oxford a translation entitled “The Staff of Christian Faith”, the only work by the popular writer Guy de Brès to be printed in English. Towards the end of this year several of his poems are published anonymously in “The Paradise of Daintye Devices” (wrongly assumed to be the work of his friend and fellow, Sir George Gascoigne) and in financial straits he is compelled to sell several of his remaining estates. In July 1578 Gabriel Harvey makes reference to the Earl’s popularity at court:
“In the prime of his gallantest youth he bestowed Angels upon me in Christ’s College in Cambridge, and otherwise vouchsafed me many gracious favours at the affectionate commendation of my cousin, Master Thomas Smith, the son of Sir Thomas..”
This was around the time the Queen visited Audley End in Essex to visit Sir Thomas Smith during a progress to Cambridge who remarked about the sixteen year old Oxford:
“Thy splendid fame, demands even more than in the case of others the services of a poet possessing lofty eloquence. Thy merit doth creep along the ground, nor can it be confined within the limits of a song. It is a wonder which reaches as far as the heavenly orbs. O great-hearted one, strong in thy mind and thy fiery will, thou wilt conquer thyself, thou wilt conquer others; thy glory will spread out in all directions beyond the Arctic Ocean; and England will put thee to the test and prove thee to be a native-born Achilles. Do thou but go forward boldly and without hesitation. Mars will obey thee, Hermes will be thy messenger, Pallas striking her shield will attend thee. For a long time past Phoebus Apollo has cultivated thy mind in enough. Let that courtly Epistle[The Courtier] more polished even than the writings of Castiglione himself-witness how greatly thou dost excel in letters. I have seen many Latin verses of thine, yea, even more English verses are extant; thou has drunk deep draughts not only of the Muses in France and Italy, but have learnt the manners of many men and the arts of foreign countries. It was for nothing that Sturmius himself was visited by thee; neither in France, Italy, nor Germany are such cultivated and polished men. O thou hero of worthy of renown, throw away the the insignificant pen, throw away bloodless books, and writings that serve no useful purpose; now must the sword be brought into play, now is the time for thee to sharpen the spear and to handle great engines of war. On all sides men are talking of camps and of deadly weapons; war and the Furies are everywhere, and Bellona reigns supreme. Now may all martial influences support thy eager mind, driving out the cares of Peace. Pull Hannibal up short at the gates of Britain. Defended though he be by a mighty host, let Don John of Austtria come on only to be driven home again. Fate is unknown to man, nor are the counsels of the Thunderer fully determined. And what if suddenly most powerful enemy should invade our borders? If the Turk should be arming his savage hosts against us? What though the terrible war trumpet is even now sounding its blast? Thou wilt see it all; even at this very moment thou art fiercely longing for the fray. I feel it. Our whole country knows it. In thy breast is noble blood, Courage animates thy brow, Mars lives in thy tongue, Minerva strengthens thy right hand, Bellona reigns in thy body, within thee burns the fire of Mars. Thine eyes flash fire; thy countenance shakes a spear; who would not swear that Achilles had come to life again?
On the 23rd December 1578 Geoffrey Gates dedicated his book “Defense of Military Profession” to the Earl of Oxford. In 1579 Anthony Munday dedicated his “Mirror of Mutability” to the Earl of Oxford. Furthermore, in April 1580, Edward de Vere had taken over the Earl of Warwick’s playing company. In 1578 Oxford became involved in the infamous altercation at a tennis-court with Sir Philip Sidney, during which Oxford called the young courtier a “puppy” in front of the French ambassador and his entourage. Elizabeth was forced to intervene later to stop Sidney’s escalation of the incident into a duel.
But the dispute continued with a series of poetic exchanges:
Were I a king I might command content;
Were I obscure unknown would be my cares,
And were I dead no thoughts should me torment,
Nor words, nor wrongs, nor love, nor hate, nor fears
A doubtful choice of these things which to crave,
A kingdom or a cottage or a grave.
Wert thou a King yet not command content,
Since empire none thy mind could yet suffice,
Wert thou obscure still cares would thee torment;
But wert thou dead, all care and sorrow dies;
An easy choice of these things which to crave,
No kingdom nor a cottage but a grave.
On another occasion, Oxford, possibly annoyed at the treatment of the Earl of Sussex, refused to dance at court on command of the Queen, insisting he would not do so for a group of Frenchmen. Rivals for the Queen’s favour included the Earl of Leicester, Sir Robert Dudley who was temporarily out of favour in 1578, and Christopher Hatton, the “dancing chancellor” called a “mere frippery” of a man and a snivelling sycophant, who was lampooned as Malvolio in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.
Another of Oxford’s poems appears to comment on the general state of Elizabeth’s court:
My mind to me a kingdom is;
Such perfect joy therein I find
That it excels all other bliss
That world affords or grows by kind.
Though much I want which most men have,
Yet still my mind forbids to crave.
No princely pomp, no wealthy store,
No force to win the victory,
No wily wit to salve a sore,
No shape to feed each gazing eye;
To none of these I yield as thrall.
For why my mind doth serve for all.
I see how plenty suffers oft,
How hasty climbers soon do fall;
I see that those that are aloft
Mishap doth threaten most of all;
They get with toil, they keep with fear.
Such cares my mind could never bear.
Content I live, this is my stay;
I seek no more than may suffice;
I press to bear no haughty sway;
Look what I lack my mind supplies;
Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
Content with that my mind doth bring.
I little have, and seek no more.
They are but poor, though much they have,
And I am rich with little store.
They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
They lack, I leave, they pine, I live.
I laugh not at another’s loss;
I grudge not at another’s gain:
No worldly waves my mind can toss;
My state at one doth still remain.
I fear no foe, nor fawning friend;
I loathe not life, nor dread my end.
Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
Their wisdom by their rage of will,
Their treasure is their only trust;
And cloaked craft their store of skill.
But all the pleasure that I find
Is to maintain a quiet mind.
My wealth is health and perfect ease;
My conscience clear my chief defense;
I neither seek by bribes to please,
Nor by deceit to breed offense.
Thus do I live; thus will I die.
Would all did so as well as I!
Nicknamed “The Turk” by Queen Elizabeth he was for a brief period a favourite at court and noted by those worthy for his love of sporting activity, writing plays and poetry, dancing, fencing and musical composition. He was once complimented on his musical ability and knowledge as being superior to his tutors and contemporaries. Anthony Munday went on to publish “Zelauto” with a dedication to the Earl of Oxenforde in 1580. While in Palermo, Italy the Earl challenged all-comers to a duel in honour of his Majesty and his martial expertise, as it turned out no one came forward to meet his challenge. On his return he is granted the Manor of Rysing by the Queen.
In 1580 three works were dedicated to Oxford, John Hester‘s “A Short Discourse . . . of Leonardo Fioravanti, Bolognese, upon Surgery”, Munday identifying himself on the title page as ‘Servant to the Right Honourable the Earl of Oxenforde’. In addition, in his “A Light Bundle of Lively Discourses Called Churchyard’s Charge, and A Pleasant Labyrinth Called Churchyard’s Chance”. Around the same time John Lyly, a playwright and author of “Euphues and His England” became secretary to the Earl of Oxford and they worked from a small mansion purchased by the Earl (1584) in Bishopsgate known as Fisher’s Folly.
An account from 1598 reads:
“There is there a fair house next to that, a far more large and beautiful house with gardens of pleasure, bowling alleys and such like, builded by Jasper Fisher, free of Goldsmiths, late one of the six clerks of the Chancery, and a Justice of the Peace. It hath since for a time been the Earl of Oxford’s place. The Queen’s Majesty Elizabeth hath lodged there…this house being so large and sumptuously builded by a man of no greater calling, possessions or wealth (for he was indebted to many) was mockingly called Fisher’s Folly, and a rhyme was made upon it.”
This was located opposite an asylum or bedlam as it was termed then and close to the river Thames. John Lyly worked so closely with Edward de Vere that it was often impossible to discern who wrote what or whether they were in constant collaboration in either poetry or plays. It was the Euphuist’s Literary Hub with Anthony Munday, John Lyly, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe, among many others. Their first probable collaboration being a performance written and produced by the Earl of Oxford of “Agamemnon & Ulysses” “enacted before her majesty by the Earl of Oxenforde, his boys on St. John’s Day (27th December) at night in Greenwich”. This later formed the basis of Shakespeare’s “Troillus & Cressida”.
Above all the St. Paul’s boy players were sponsored and patronised by the Earl for many years and his own group of players were busy giving performances at court of Lyly’s and other playwright’s plays. The Earl was subsequently satirised by his literary adversary Gabriel Harvey in his “Speculum Tuscanismi”. Harvey was thoroughly trashed for his verse style by Thomas Nashe a decade later in his “Strange News” (1592). However, the Queen was informed that Oxford had been fooling around with one of her Ladies-in-Waiting, Anne Vavasour and had made her pregnant. Both Oxford and Anne Vavasour were temporarily imprisoned in the Tower. On his release Oxford was banished from court for several years and was obliged to fight a duel with Anne’s uncle Sir Thomas Knyvett. Both of the duellists were injured and the fighting went on occasionally in the streets of London in gangland style.
In 1583 Thomas Watson dedicates his work “Hekatompathia” and then the Earl’s brother-in-law, Peregrine Bertie returns from Elsinore, Denmark, the actual historical site of the Shakespearean play Hamlet. In 1584 Robert Greene published his “Greene’s Card of Fancy” while the Earl takes over Lord Worcester’s Men and acquires the sub-lease of the Blackfriar’s Theatre and then transfers it to his personal secretary, John Lyly. Although a bohemian renegade playwright and poet he writes:
“Wheresoever Maecenas lodgeth, thither no doubt will scholars flock. And your honour being a worthy favourer and fosterer of learning hath forced many through your excellent virtue to offer the first fruits of their study at teh shrine of your Lordship’s courtesy. But though they have waded far and found mines, and I gadded abroad to get nothing but mites, yet this I assure you myself, that they never presented unto your Honour their treasure with a more willing mind than I do this simple trash, which I hope your Lordship will so accept. Resting therefore upon your Honour’s wonted clemency, I commit your Lordship to the Almighty.
Your Lordship’s most dutiful to command, Robert Greene.”
George Puttenham later summed up social and cultural life at Elizabeth’s court in “The Arte of English Poesie” (1589).
“And in her Majesty’s time that now are sprung up another crew of courtly makers, [poets], Noblemen and Gentlemen of Her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford.”
In 1586 Angel Day published his book “The English Secretary” with a dedication to the Earl of Oxford, the same year that Mary Queen of Scots was executed. In his dedication to the Earl of Oxford Angel Day writes “whose infancy from the beginning was ever sacred to the Muses”:
“The exceeding bounty wherewith your Lordship hath ever wonted to entertain the deserts of all men, and very appearance of nobility herself, well known to have reposed her delights in the worthiness of your stately mind, warranteth me almost that I need not blush to recommend unto your courteous view the first fruits of these my foremost labours, and to honour this present discourse with the memory of your everlasting worship.”
This was the same year that Oxford’s £1,000 annuity was officially sealed by the Queen, the warrant defined as follows:
“We will and command you of our treasure being and remaining from time to time within the receipt of Our Exchequer, to deliver and pay, or cause to be delivered and paid, unto Our right trusty and well beloved Cousin the Earl of Oxford or to his assigns sufficiently authorised by him, the sum of One Thousand Pounds, good and lawful money of England”.
Ostensibly, he becomes the Queen’s “spin-doctor” and chief court propagandist through his involvement in the theatre. However, in 1588 his wife Anne dies and the first of the Martin Marprelate tracts are released and while it is presumed he made significant secret ripostes to these with his secretary John Lyly and Anthony Munday who dedicated “Romances of Chivalry” to him. Munday actually mentions the Earl’s proficiency in various languages as follows:
“For if this vice were so despised among such famous persons, what reproach would it be to so poor an abject as myself, being once so happy as to serve a master so noble, to forget his precious virtues, which makes him generally beloved, but chiefly mine own duty, which nothing but death can discharge.”
The same year the Spanish Armada threatened English shores (1588) Anthony Munday dedicated his “Palmerin D’Oliva” to Edward de Vere and George Puttenham acknowledges him as “first among noblemen-poets to have written exceedingly well”. By 1588 Thomas Kyd (A Spanish Tragedy and Ur-Hamlet) replaced John Lyly as his personal secretary. Oxford re-married to another of the Queen’s Ladies-in-Waiting, Elizabeth Trentham in 1592 and moved into a mansion in Hackney, living it would seem an “impoverished” existence despite his noble status.
When Edmund Spenser finally published his opus “The Fairie Queene” in honour to Queen Elizabeth (1590) the Earl contributes a laudatory poem and is hailed as “dear to the muses”. After the Earl of Oxford’s second marriage to Elizabeth Trentham (1591), John Farmer dedicated his “Book of Plain Song” to the Earl of Oxford.
By June 1594 Lord Strange’s Men, most notably Burbage and Kempe were incorporated into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (under Lord Hunsdon but essentially Edward de Vere’s acting company). Willobie his Avisa is published anonymously with euphemisms suggesting Shakespeare (W.S.) is the author of the poem Lucrece dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (H. W.) and to Bessie Vavasour, the Earl of Oxford’s mistress. Henry Wriothesley declines to marry Oxford’s daughter despite Lord Burghley’s insistence and pays a fine of £4,000. In 1595 Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth de Vere was married to the Earl of Derby, William Stanley and it is presumed that the play a Midsummer Night’s Dream was specially commissioned for the event.
In 1598 when Love’s Labours Lost is published under the pseudonym William Shakespeare, John Marston published “Scourge of Villanie” referring to the Earl as “most beloved” for his literary talents and esteem among other writers.
In September the same year Francis Meres registers Palladis Tamia in which he is named as “best for comedy”. The following year (1599) the Globe Theatre re-opens with the Earl’s financial assistance and John Farmer publishes his “Set of English Madrigals” with a dedication to the Earl of Oxenforde.
Subsequently, the Earl combines Worcester’s Men with his own drama group and is authorised to perform at the Boar’s Head. On the death of Queen Elizabeth (1603), Oxford’s company (Lord Chamberlain’s Men) are renamed The King’s Men when James 1st assumes the throne and pardons the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s patron) who is finally released from detention in the Tower of London.
After the death of the Earl of Oxford in Hackney, presumably of plague in 1604, Ben Jonson is elected by William Herbert, Lord Chamberlain and the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley to oversee the compilation and publishing of Shakespeare’s Folio of plays, some of which were still in the possession of the King’s Men, previously acting as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. I have attempted to give a plausible scenario of this undertaking by the actors, or should I say “front-men” for this gargantuan task in Chapter 15, Shakespeare’s Literary Sources.
Ben Jonson’s regard to the author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry is somewhat marred by his numerous comments, suffice to say they had a love-hate relationship and that they belonged to two distinct and separate literary and dramatic “worlds”. His eulogies to “Shakespeare” are rife with ambiguity as well as praise. While much of Ben’s personal correspondence was unfortunately lost in a fire sometime after 1623, some comments were saved in particular from a notebook entitled “De Shakespeare Nostrati”, (Our Native Shakespeare) the following confession, which must be held referred to the Earl of Oxford:
“I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, would he have blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted. And to justify mine own candour, (for I loved the man, and do honour his memory on this side Idolatry) as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open, and free nature; had an excellent Fantasy; brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped: Sufflaminandus erat; as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his power; would the rule of it had been so too. Many times he fell into those things, could not escape laughter; as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him; Caesar thou dost me wrong. He replied: Caesar never did wrong, but with just cause and such like: which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices, with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised, than to be pardoned.”
The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows:
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