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Edward de Vere was born 12 April 1550 at Castle Hedingham, Essex. His father, John de Vere 16th earl of Oxford, married Dorothy Nevill, daughter of the earl of Warwick, in 1536, but, unwilling to tolerate the evil company he kept, she left him about Corpus Christi Day 1545. Oxford then bigamously married Joan Jockey, whom he installed at his residence in Earls Colne, Essex, even while keeping a mistress named Anne at nearby Tilbury-juxta-Clare. About the time of Dorothy's death in January 1548, two of Oxford's brothers-in-law and several of his servants broke down Joan Jockey's door at Earls Colne, and pinned her to the ground while Oxford's servant John Smith cut off her nose - traditional punishment for a whore. Under pressure from Protector Somerset to wed a distant relative, the headstrong earl instead contracted marriage with Dorothy Fosser of Haverhill, Suffolk. The banns having been read twice, Oxford set off from Castle Hedingham for the wedding, but instead of travelling north-west to Haverhill, he secretly travelled north-east to the Essex village of Belchamp St. Paul's, where, in a clandestine ceremony conducted by the suborned vicar of nearby Clare, Suffolk, he married Margery, half-sister of Arthur Golding.
The Elizabethan Edward de Vere was thus the son of a ruthless sexual adventurer, a man - incidentally - of no political consequence. Like father - says the proverb - like son.
Edward matriculated in Cambridge Universiry at the age of eight-and-a-half (not surprising for the son of an earl), but remained less than a year, and never received an earned degree from either Cambridge or Oxford. He may have lived in the household of Sir Thomas Smith from 1559 until 1562, when by his father's death he became 17th earl of Oxford and ward of Sir William Cecil.
On 23 July 1567, while practicing fencing with Edward Baynam, a tailor, in the backyard of Cecil's house in the Strand, the seventeen-year-old Oxford killed an unarmed undercook named Thomas Brincknell with a thrust to the thigh. A packed jury instructed by Cecil found that Brincknell had caused his own death by wilfully hurling himself on Oxford's rapier. Condemned as a suicide, Brincknell was denied Christian burial, his pregnant widow Agnes and three-year-old son Quyntyn stripped of their assets and abandoned to her relatives and the parish church. Thus logic and justice died that a hot-tempered young earl might walk free.
Here Oxford learned a lesson which was to last the next thirty years of his life: he could commit no crime so vile that Cecil - soon to become the powerful Lord Burghley - would not personally forgive and persuade others to forget.
In 1569, at the age of nineteen, Oxford thanked Cecil for his good offices (I have underlined notable spellings):
For the which althothe I haue fownd yow to not account of late of me as in time tofore yet not wythstandinge that strangnes yow shall se at last in me that I will aknowlege and not be vngratfull vnto yow for them and not to deserue so ill a thowght in yow that they were ill bestowed in me. But at this present desiringe yow yf I haue done any thinge amise that I haue merited yowre offence imput to my yong yeares and lak of experience to know my friendesThis was only the first of many times that Oxford would confess his misconduct but put the blame on his friends.
On 19 December 1571 Oxford married Anne Cecil, Sir William's fifteen-year-old daughter. Oxford soon began sleeping in other beds, and Anne became pregnant in October 1574 only by her personal intervention in the household arrangements at Hampton Court - in effect, giving Oxford no option but to spend the night in her bedchamber.
In 1573 Thomas Beningfield published his translation of Cardanos Comfort with a dedication to Oxford dated 1 January 1572. Beningfield also included a letter from Oxford, and a poem entitled "The Earle of Oxenforde to the Reader": the poem ends with the couplet
For hee that beates the bushe the byrde not gets,At the time he wrote this doggerel Oxford was approaching his twenty-second birthday.
But who sittes still, and holdeth fast the nets.
On 25 March 1573 Oxford's servant George Brown killed George Sanders, a London merchant, on Shooter's Hill near Greenwich, and mortally wounded John Bean. The disclosure of Brown's prior romantic entanglement with Sanders' wife led to a total of four executions by hanging. Oxford's half-uncle Arthur Golding quickly published a sanitized account of what was England's most notorious murder since 1551. Both incidents earned a place in Holinshed's Chronicle and subsequently on the London stage, the 1551 murder as Arden of Feversham (1592), the 1573 murder as A Warning for Fair Women (1599).
On 20 May three more of Oxford's men, Danye Wylkyns, John Hannam, and Maurice Dennis alias Deny the Frenchman, attacked two of Burghley's men with muskets near Gravesend in Kent.
In 1574 Oxford bolted to the Low Countries. Returning under duress, he managed to persuade Queen Elizabeth to let him travel to more southern climes. In 1575 Oxford visited Italy, built a house in Venice, spent over L4000, took a Venetian courtesan named Virginia Padoana, and wallowed in sexual infamy. The trophies he brought with him to England in April 1576 included a pair of silk gloves for the Queen, a fifteen-year-old Venetian choirboy named Orazio Cogno, and syphilis.
Oxford now denied paternity of the nine-month-old daughter he earlier acknowledged. Abandoning his wife and daughter to Burghley's care, he set up household with his choirboy in Broadstreet.
1576 saw a second edition of Cardanos Comfort, and a first edition of A Paradise of Dainty Devices, a poetic anthology with the initials "E.O." on its title-page and attached to six poems. Anthologies with Oxford's name or initials appeared in print every second year on average to the end of Elizabeth's reign.
In July 1577 William Weekes murdered William Sankey, a former servant of Oxford's, and was subsequently hanged for the crime. Oxford's confidante Henry Howard called it a contract murder for which Oxford paid L100. In late 1579 Oxford pulled rank on Sir Philip Sidney at the Greenwich tennis court. Words flew; Oxford called Sidney a "puppy"; Sidney made a smart retort; and Elizabeth placed Oxford under house arrest from 29 January to 11 February 1580 for sending Sidney a written challenge. On 16 December 1580 Oxford informed on three of his former dining companions, who in turn accused Oxford of murder, pederasty, necromancy, athiesm, lying, drunkenness, and sedition. On 21 March 1581 Anne Vavasor, one of the queen's maids of honor, gave birth to an illegitimate son and was thrown into the Tower. Oxford, the child's father, took French leave, but was captured and placed under arrest before 29 April. From March 1582 to March 1583 Oxford and his men engaged in frequent street-battles with an incensed relative of Anne Vavasor: four men were killed and four others - including Oxford - were injured. This hooliganism led Lawrence Stone, the eminent social historian of the Elizabethan age, to conclude:
Both in the brutality of their tactics and in their immunity from the law, the nearest parallels to the Earl of Oxford and Sir Thomas Knyvett in the London of Queen Elizabeth are Al Capone and Dion O'Banion, Bugs Moran and Johnny Torrio in the Chicago of the 1920s.
Oxford's injury, the burial of an infant son on 9 May 1583, and stern words from Elizabeth finally compelled an about-face. From now on Oxford's biography is less eventful though no less well-documented. In 1586, with Burghley's help, Oxford secured a royal grant of L1000 per annum to repair his squandered fortune. In 1588, during the battle of the Armada, Oxford refused point-blank Leicester's request that he assume governorship of the Essex port of Harwich, complaining that the post was beneath his dignity. Burghley saved the honor of the English nobility by retrospectively fabricating a heroic role for Oxford, but his peer support at the annual Order of the Garter elections plummetted to zero, and remained at zero while Elizabeth drew breath.
Oxford spent his last sixteen years scrounging for money. He applied for the right to gauge vessels for beer and ale; for the exclusive right to import fruits, oils, and wools; for the governorship of the Isle of Jersey and the presidency of Wales; and, from 1595 to 1599, for the tin monopoly in Devon and Cornwall. After Anne's death in 1588 - lamented by everyone but himself - Oxford partly repaired his fortunes by marrying the wealthy Elizabeth Trentham, who gave birth to Oxford's only male heir, Henry de Vere, in 1593. Despite an endless stream of begging letters to Burghley and his son Robert (Oxford's brother-in-law), including a desperate request in 1591 to trade in his L1000 annuity for a one-time settlement of L5000, Oxford received no further support from Elizabeth. Finally, under James and shortly before his death on 24 June 1604, Oxford received his first vote for the Order of the Garter since before the Armada.
Oxford took over the players of the earl of Warwick in March 1580. When outraged law students from the Inns of Court rioted at the Theater, Oxford's men replied with such spirit that three of them landed in jail. Burghley then came to Oxford's aid by recommending his company to the Vice-chancellor of Cambridge University. Among Oxford's servants at the time were John Lyly and Anthony Munday, both playwrights. Oxford's company remained intact from 1580 until 1602, when it was amalgamated with Worcester's men.
In 1586, when Oxford's verse had been in print for thirteen years, William Webbe sang his praise in A Discourse of English Poetrie:
I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honourable and noble Lords and Gentlemen in Her Majesty's Court, which, in the rare devices of poetry, have been and yet are most skilful; among whom the right honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest.
In 1589 Oxford received further applause in The Arte of English Poetrie:
... for Tragedie, the Lord of Buckhurst, & Maister Edward Ferrys for such doings as I haue sene of theirs do deserue the hyest price: Th'Earle of Oxford and Maister Edwardes of her Maiesties Chappell for Comedy and Enterlude. ...
In 1598 Francis Meres cited the 1589 report almost verbatim (emphasis mine):
... the best for Comedy amongst vs bee, Edward Earle of Oxforde, Doctor Gager of Oxforde, Maister Rowley once a rare Scholler of learned Pembrooke Hall in Cambridge, Maister Edwardes one of her Maiesties Chappell, eloquent and wittie Iohn Lilly, Lodge, Gascoyne, Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood, Anthony Mundye our best plotter, Chapman, Porter, Wilson, Hathway, and Henry Chettle.Here Oxford shares the limelight with sixteen other playwrights - including Shakespeare, who was clearly a different person altogether!
Oxford's was a life - and I have not told the half - full of incident and literary fame. How satisfying to associate him with Shakespeare and Hamlet! (How much more satisfying to associate him with Christopher Marlowe and Dr. Faustus, where the resemblance is notably more exact!) But not a scrap of documentary evidence connects Edward de Vere to Shakespeare or to the Shakespeare canon.
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