A short life of Eward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

He was born in 1550 at Castle Hedingham, his family's ancestral home. His father, John de Vere, 16th Earl, was Lord Great Chamberlain at the coronations of both Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. His mother was Margaret Golding. Edward was 10 when, in 1561, Queen Elizabeth visited Hedingham for four days of masques, feasting and entertainments. When his father died in 1562, young Oxford, left to become, like Bertram in All'sWell, a ward of the Crown under the tutelage of William Cecil, the Queen's private secretary, (later Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer). His mother married Charles Tyrrell and seems to have passed out of the boy's life. His sister Mary went to live with her stepfather and they were not reunited for some years.

In the Cecil household his daily curriculum included: dancing, French, Latin, Greek, writing & drawing, cosmography, penmanship, shooting, exercise and prayer. His education continued at St John's College, Cambridge and Gray's Inn (a College of Law). His uncle Arthur Golding, an officer in the Court of Wards under Cecil, is credited with the translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, published in 1567. A book widely recognised as having a major influence on "Shakespeare".

In 1570 he served in a military campaign in Scotland under the Earl of Sussex. By 1571, he was reported as a leading luminary of the Court and for a time, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. In December 1571 he married Anne Cecil, aged 15, daughter of his guardian. This was a dynastic marriage where all the advantage accrued to Cecil, who was ennobled as Baron Burghley to reduce the social gap between himself and the young Earl.

While Oxford was away on a Grand Tour of Europe, he heard that his daughter Elizabeth Vere had been born in July 1575. On his return in early 1576 he appeared to have been convinced that Elizabeth was not his child; consequently he became estranged from Anne for five years, and exiled himself from Court, taking up residence in the Savoy and concerning himself with literary and musical patronage.

Already, in 1573 Cardanus Comfort (the Consolations of Boethius) had been translated from Latin by Thomas Bedingfield and dedicated to Oxford and published with a preface written by him. In 1576 an anthology, A Paradise of Daintie Devices, including several poems by Oxford, was published. These are juvenile works but already show affinities, in both style and thought, with those of the mature Shakespeare.

Oxford's Grand Tour had taken in Paris, Strasbourg, Venice, Genoa, Florence, Palermo and, on his way back through France, Rousillon the setting for Love's Labour's Lost. Oxford spent the best part of a year travelling in Italy in 1576, and becoming involved with moneylenders. He came back to England fluent in Italian and well acquainted with the Northern Italian cities, to be satirized by Gabriel Harvey as 'The Italian Earl'.  On his way back his ship was attacked by pirates in the Channel (cf Hamlet). Fourteen of "Shakespeare's" plays have Italian settings, in which he put his detailed knowledge of the country, beyond pure book knowledge, to good use.

1573 saw the birth of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Despite the difference in their ages, the two men knew one another well. The poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece, (1594) were dedicated to Southampton. These were the first works to be published under the name "Shakespeare" and for the next five years the records show the by-line "Shakespeare" to have been associated exclusively with these two poems. Plays under the name "Shakespeare" did not appear in print until 1598, the year that Lord Burghley died.

In May 1577 Oxford invested in Frobisher's voyage in the ship Edward Bonaventure. Despite its name, the ship's voyage across the Atlantic in search of the North West Passage lost money; consequently he was forced to sell 3 estates (cf Hamlet's words I am but mad north-north-west II.1.). In 1578 he invested in Frobisher's second expedition, which also lost money, forcing further sales of estates.

He was mentioned by Gabriel Harvey in an address to Queen Elizabeth in July 1578, as a prolific private poet and one "whose countenance shakes spears". In the same year John Lyly, Oxford's secretary, published Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, followed in 1579 by Euphues his England, dedicated to Oxford. These two books launched the fashion for "Euphuism", a style characterized by high-flown language, satirized in Love's Labour's Lost.

In March 1581 his mistress, Anne Vavasour, gave birth to a son. The lovers and their son were sent to the Tower by an infuriated Queen and swiftly released (cf Measure for Measure). After his release, he was wounded in a street-fight provoked by Thomas Knyvet, a kinsmen of Anne Vavasour; affrays continued in the streets of London between the rival gangs of supporters for over a year (cf Romeo & Juliet).

In December 1581 he resumed living with his long-suffering and devoted wife, and accepted Elizabeth Vere as his child. Tragically, their only son died one day after his birth. Four more daughters followed, of whom Susan and Bridget survived.

In 1584 Robert Greene's Card of Fancy was dedicated to him, identifying him as a "pre-eminent writer". In 1586, when he was 36, he served on the tribunal which condemned Mary Queen of Scots to execution.

In the same year, the Queen awarded Oxford an unconditional pension of £1000 a year for life (about £500,000 at today's value). The motive for this uncharacteristic generosity on the part of the Queen remains a mystery, no accounting was required of Oxford. Her successor King James I continued to pay the pension. In reply to the then Lord Burghley's request that Lord Sheffield's pension be increased, the King refused, saying "Great Oxford got no more. . ."., leaving us to wonder why Great Oxford? His greatness does not seem to have resided in war or service to the State. Indeed, from the testimony of many contemporaries, and later historians, Oxford outwardly was a spendthrift, disreputable and rather unpleasant man, not an ornament to any Court. 

In May 1587 the playwright Thomas Kyd joined his household. In 1588 his wife Anne died. In 1589 George Puttenham referred to him as "first among noblemen-poets if their doings could be made public." In 1590 marriage negotiations between his daughter Elizabeth and Southampton, which had been promoted by Burghley, broke down at a late stage.

In 1591 or 92 Oxford married Elizabeth Trentham and retired from Court, and in 1593 they were blessed with a son, Henry. In 1596 he and his Countess moved to King's Place, in the fashionable north-east London suburb of Hackney, adjacent to Stratford (not on Avon). From then on his public, documented, life sinks into obscurity. In 1594 his ship the Edward Bonaventure was wrecked in Bermuda (cf The Tempest).  In January 1595 Elizabeth Vere married the 6th Earl of Derby, another literary earl; many scholars believe that A Midsummer Night's Dream was written for these festivities. 

On September 7 1598, Francis Meres' Palladis Tamia was registered for publication, naming Oxford as the "best for comedy".  This is a vital document in Shakespearean history because it includes the first mention of "Shakespeare" as a playwright, attributing twelve plays to him; until then Shakespeare's reputation had rested on the two narrative poems only.

Oxford suffered all his life from financial difficulties, not all of his own making. On the Queen's death in 1603 he wrote eloquently to Robert Cecil, 2nd Baron Burghley, of his "great grief". He wrote, "In this common shipwreck, mine is above all the rest, who least regarded, though often comforted, she hath left to try my fortune among the alterations of time and chance". 

Oxford died in Hackney in 1604, cause unknown. Parish records state that he was buried in Hackney Church on July 6, but a family history by his first cousin Percival Golding, states "Edward de Veer ....a man in mind and body absolutely accomplished with honorable endowments....lieth buried at Westminster". No record of such a burial can now be traced in Westminster Abbey, where there is a Vere family tomb.

The Aftermath of Oxford's life and death

During the winter season 1604-05, six of Shakespeare's plays were presented at Court by command of James I. This has an air of commemoration. In 1609 SonnetsOxford's motto Nil Vero Verius ('Nothing truer than truth', or, 'than a Vere').  were published in a pirated edition. The famous dedication describes the author as "our ever-living", a phrase invariably used only of the dead, and, coincidentally, with the change of only one letter, an anagram of

In 1622 Henry Peacham published, in The Compleat Gentelman, a list of poets who made Elizabeth's reign a "golden age". Unaccountably, he omitted Shakespeare but included Oxford - perhaps he knew them to be the same person. This is unlike Meres who included them both, maybe one reason was because he didn't know Oxford and Shakespeare were the same

We do not know who instigated publication of the First Folio Edition of the Shakespeare Plays in 1623, but there is no mention of any executor or relative of Shakspere of Stratford in connection with it. However, of the two brothers who financed it and to whom it was dedicated, one, Philip Earl of Montgomery was the husband of Oxford's daughter Susan, while the other, William Earl of Pembroke, had once been a suitor for her sister Bridget. Pembroke was Lord Chamberlain, the supreme authority in the world of theatre, and thus in a position to decide which plays were to be published and which suppressed. We also know that Ben Jonson, who wrote much of the introductory material, was an intimate associate of the De Vere family after Oxford's death. The First Folio was therefore very much a family affair, but the family was not the one in Stratford-on-Avon.