EDWARD DE VERE (1550-1604), 17th EARL OF OXFORD, courtier and intimate of Queen Elizabeth, poet and playwright, and patron of theatre companies and writers.

Whether or not Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare, his was a fascinating and significant life. Heir to the second oldest Earldom in the country, his father died when he was twelve (1562) and he was brought up as a royal Ward of Court in the household of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s perennial Secretary of State and chief adviser – the most powerful man in the government for something like forty years. De Vere was a child prodigy, educated by the finest tutors and graduating from Cambridge University at the age of thirteen. He was a great favourite at Court, especially with the Queen, though from his late teens he became more and more volatile and rebellious. Unpredictable and theatrical, he was known for devising brilliant court entertainments, and throughout his life he was widely praised as a poet, comedian and dramatist, though he published very little in his own name – all that survives are a few poems from his youth. An intense and passionate man, he got caught up in notorious love affairs, feuds and controversies during his life.

On reaching his majority at the age of 18, de Vere (now ‘Oxford’) discovered that he had inherited debts and owed the Crown staggering sums of money for his wardship and livery fees, and started selling land. Financial troubles plagued him for many years, and he gained a reputation as the profligate Earl who squandered a great fortune, but this is not the whole story. Certainly he was flamboyant and reckless, but he also sank huge amounts of money into sponsorship of the theatre and its writers, and throughout his life was a driving force in the English literary renaissance in its various stages. Oxford was also famed as a champion jouster, and at various times he sought military command.

His relationship with Elizabeth had its highs and lows, and on more than one occasion he openly defied her. After she executed de Vere’s cousin, the Duke of Norfolk, he left the country without permission and traveled in France and Italy. Two ‘Gentlemen Pensioners’ were sent to escort him back to England under severe penalties, but he faced no further punishment.

At twenty-one de Vere married the daughter of his guardian, Ann Cecil, but he repudiated her after the birth of their first child, which he refused to acknowledge as his, and remained unreconciled with her for over five years, during which time he travelled and threw himself into the bohemian world of the London theatre. He spent 16 months in Italy, this time with royal permission, basing himself in Venice and visiting all the locations – Verona, Padua, Mantua etc – which later became settings in Shakespeare’s plays. This rift, obviously, put him serious odds with his wife’s father, William Cecil, and at the same time Oxford’s financial situation was deteriorating. 

During his Italian period, de Vere imported luxury goods into England, got involved with the Commedia dell’Arte, and invested 3,000 ducats in a failed expedition to find the North-West Passage. He resorted to money-lenders on several occasions, both in Venice and elsewhere.

On his return voyage, de Vere’s ship was attacked by pirates, who kidnapped him, took everything he had, and dumped him ‘naked’ on the English coast. Making a dramatic re-entry to the Court, surrounded by marital controversy and financial problems, under pressure from the powerful Cecil family, de Vere brazened it out in his new persona of the ‘Italian Earl’, adopting flamboyant fashions and manners and involving himself ever more deeply in the theatrical and literary worlds. Almost every known writer of the period acknowledged his support and influence. He became the lease-holder of the indoor theatre at Blackfriars, where he installed his secretary John Lily as house writer. (The Blackfriars project was, however, blocked for a whole decade by the machinations of various associates of the Cecil faction.)  The Earl of Oxford’s Players rehearsed at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, made famous by Shakespeare as the setting for the bohemian scenes in the plays of Henry IV and V.

During this period De Vere was a Privy Counsellor and struggled to gain political influence. He was also an increasingly turbulent presence at Court, feuding publicly with Sir Phillip Sydney, and, more seriously, with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, intimate of the Queen and a powerful political influence on her. This ‘libellous’ feud culminated in Oxford being placed under house arrest.

While separated from his wife, Oxford had an illicit affair with Ann Vavasour, noblewoman and one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour, who gave birth to a son (in her chambers at Court!). Not only was Oxford arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, and then placed once again under house-arrest, but a feud also broke out with the lady’s family. There were deadly street-fights around Blackfriars between Oxford’s faction and that of Sir Thomas Knyvet, Vavasour’s uncle. At least three deaths resulted, and Oxford was wounded, laming him for life. Elizabeth’s patience was exhausted, and Oxford was banished from the Court.

During this period he was reconciled with his wife, and eventually, with the Queen, and brought back to Court after a two year absence, though he never regained his former honour. Surprisingly, however, de Vere was eventually relieved of his deepening financial problems when the Queen granted him a generous stipend of £1,000 a year, a large sum of money. After the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the stipend was renewed by the new king, James I. 

After Ann Cecil died in her early thirties, de Vere remarried, and had another daughter (making three, not forgetting his illegitimate son by Ann Vavasour). By a strange coincidence, all three of the dedicatees of literary works by William Shakespeare were either married to, or suitors of, de Vere’s three daughters. De Vere was recognized by various writers and diarists, overtly or covertly, as the best writer of his times, but none of his adult works have survived – we only have his juvenilia. He was the first to publish a sonnet in the ‘English’ or ‘Shakespearean’ form.

Edward de Vere died in 1604. That same year, the revised edition of Hamlet was published, and after that no new or authorized publications of Shakespeare plays appeared until the First Folio in 1623 (apart from a pirated Troilus and Cressida). Later in 1604 King James celebrated his first Winter Revels with seven plays by Shakespeare: was this a commemorative festival? The play The Merchant of Venice is attributed to the ‘Lord Chancellor’ in the Stationer’s Register; Oxford held the hereditary title of Lord Great Chancellor, a ceremonial role.  In 1609, SHAKE-SPEARE’S SONNETS was published with a dedication to ‘our ever-living poet’, which implies, ironically, that the author is already dead. 

De Vere frequently punned on his own name (ver- means ‘truth’) and the word ‘ever’ (E. Vere), sometimes writing it eVer. In Sonnet 76, he allegedly encodes his name using the characteristic pun:

That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?

The poet of the sonnets portrays himself as an older man, high-born but in disgrace, and lame. 

De Vere’s candidacy as Shakespeare has been argued in hundreds of books, and supported by numerous writers, actors and directors. Walt Whitman wrote that Shakespeare’s history plays must have been ‘conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of feudalism by one of the wolfish earls who are so plentiful in Shakespeare’s plays’. Both Ben Johnson and Gabriel Harvey made cryptic references to Oxford as a ‘spear-shaker’ (see Candidate 5 for an explanation of the symbolic associations of the name ‘Shakespeare’).

De Vere’s heraldic badge was a star. 

‘This Starre of Poets’ – Ben Jonson


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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