Today is the four-hundred-sixty-third anniversary of the birth of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, courtier, poet, and, according to some, the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays. Even the ones performed after his death. He must have been a very literary ghost.
De Vere was born on 12 April 1550 at his family’s ancestral pile, Hedingham Castle. His family could trace their roots back to France (as the name suggests) and had been in England since before the Norman Conquest. The family’s ascent was, in fact, due to William the Conqueror, who rewarded the support of Aubrey de Vere with many estates. Edward’s father died when he was 12, and he became a ward of Queen Elizabeth, who placed him in the household of her chief advisor, William Cecil. There, he received the sort of education thought appropriate for a young gentleman: instruction in dancing, French, Latin, writing, drawing, and prayers. After making the acquaintance of John Dee in 1570, he also became interested in occultism, magic, and conjuring.
When Edward came of age in 1571, he discovered that a third of his estate, which had reverted to the crown, had been settled on Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley. Furthermore, Elizabeth demanded another £3000 as payment for overseeing Edward’s wardship, and another £4000 on top of that for suing his livery (basically, acknowledging that he was of age and could control the powers attached to his title). De Vere promised to pay twice the amount if he was unable to pay when it was actually due, putting him at risk for an astronomical debt. Despite the queen’s greed, Edward became a favourite of hers. While at court, he began writing poetry, and he was one of the first people to introduce vernacular verse to the courtiers. The same year her attained his majority, de Vere married Cecil’s daughter, Anne.
It didn’t take long before de Vere became a scandalous character at court. Despite the fact that he had a tidy income, he quickly ran into debt, and he quarrelled fiercely with the Cecil family, for reasons unknown, and claimed (probably wrongly) that the daughter Anne gave birth to in 1575 wasn’t his. He started selling off his ancestral estates, in one case, to help fund Martin Frobisher’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which was a failure. He quarrelled with other courtiers, and offended the French when they came over to negotiate a marriage between Elizabeth and the Count of Anjou. In 1581, one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour gave birth to a son, allegedly de Vere’s, and the couple were imprisoned in the Tower for a time. Although Elizabeth eventually forgave him his many transgressions, he never was one of her favourites again.
In addition to being a hot mess, de Vere was also a patron of the arts, supporting theatrical companies, a company of musicians, and performances by tumblers, acrobats, and animals. He also continued to write, and his verses were widely circulated at court. His verses and plays continue to receive praise from critics to this day.
Edward died not long after Elizabeth, in June 1604, leaving a much reduced inheritance and four children by two wives. He was buried on 6 July in the parish church of St Augustine.