THE SEARCH BEGINS: PART 3
We left de Vere at the end of 1590, when he was involved in an unseemly squabble over some overdue room rent in London. We had seen him descend to this level partly by selling off 54 of his estates and partly by his own disreputable conduct. But through it all he must have had qualities that attracted some people to him who became devoted to him, and we saw that Thomas Churchyard, the soldier/writer/poet who spent many years in his service, was one of them.
There is extant an 'indenture' between de Vere and John Lyly, another poet/dramatist, who spent many years working for de Vere. Although it's dated in December 1584, it is 'forever' and so runs during the final period of the lives of both of them, as de Vere died in 1604 and Lyly in 1606. This agreement describes Lyly as 'of London, gent. Servant to the said Earl.' It recites at some length that the earl has some property in Stansted, Essex, made over for ever to Edward Hubbard, described as 'Receiver General to the said Earl' and Hubbard's wife, for ever, for which they pay £30-13-4 yearly rent. This rent the earl makes over to Lyly
in consideration of a certain sum of money to the Earl, and also in consideration of the good and faithful service that he hath heretofore done with the said earl, gives John Lyly his heirs and assigns forever the said yearly rent of £30-13-4.
The 'certain sum' is interesting and shows contract law has not changed much from that day to this. Past consideration does not create a valid contract. It must have present consideration on both sides to constitute a legal agreement. Modern drafting gets around this by inserting "for two dollars and other valuable consideration, receipt of which is hereby acknowledged...' But our main interest here is that it shows us how de Vere had used his property to pay his bills and salaries. It also shows us by the 'forever' that this document is innocent of the concept of inflation and what it may do to such binding agreements.
Unfortunately we don't seem to have evidence as to exactly when John Lyly ceased to be a 'servant' of the earl. But now, in 1591 both of them have less than 16 years to live. De Vere in his correspondence mentions his 'infirmity' and 'lame hand', and in one instance he says that he 'has not an able body.' He gives that as his reason for his inability to attend upon Her Majesty the Queen. There is visible evidence for his physical deterioration. A portrait dated 1586 shows de Vere to be erect, proud, haughty, supercilious, arrogant, imperious, and every inch an aristocrat. But a 1597 portrait shows an ageing, balding man, humbled by circumstance, the fire has gone from his eyes, his body droops; this is the portrait of a man beaten down by the cares of the world. There is as yet no reconciliation in old age, it is a retreat in middle age. The 'what will be' of youth in his former portrait has become 'what could have been.' His hands now look as though there may be some deformity, perhaps arthritis. His right arm is resting next to a skull. It is this, the man de Vere has become, that we now have to consider.
One biographer has headed his chapter on this part of his life as 'The Recluse' and proceeds to write another 48 pages mostly on anything but de Vere. That's because from now on in his life very little is known about him. He has dropped out of sight and is no longer a public figure.
It's said with apparent confidence that he married Elizabeth Trentham, a Maid of Honour, in 1591, but no one seems to have cited a parish record or date for the marriage. Some say 1591 or 1592. As to the bride, no one seems to know when she was born. She is said to be the daughter of Sir Stafford Trentham, a Staffordshire landowner. One contemporary reference refers to her as 'fair' which evokes modern comment that she was a 'court beauty.' We don't know that. We don't know how they met. We don't know how old she was, whether this was her first marriage or she was a widow. It was de Vere's second marriage, he being a widower since 1588. She is said to have been 'a wealthy heiress' but no one tells us what her worth was financially. We apparently know nothing about her mother.
There are some things we do know. This was the first time de Vere married by his own choice. It seems to have been a love match. She bore him a son in 1593. Apparently there is no evidence for further children. The son survived to manhood and became the 18th Earl of Oxford. De Vere and Elizabeth stayed together until his death in 1604. She died in 1612. Her will says in part
I joyfully commit my body to the earth from whence it was taken, desiring to be buried in the church of Hackney within the County of Middlesex, as near unto the body of my said late dear and noble Lord and husband as may be, and that to be done as privately and with as little pomp and ceremony as may be. Only I will that there be in the said church erected for us a tomb fitting our degree...
She was, after all, Countess of Oxford. From this I think we may deduce that she loved her husband, and that he probably loved her, to make it so, and that he had not been buried in Westminster Abbey to which his rank entitled him, but in the local Hackney church with little ceremony, and not even a tomb 'fitting his degree.'
There is extant a letter sent by Elizabeth Trentham to a judge of the High Court. Because we have so little information about their marriage, here's the letter in full
Master Doctor Caesar, I should have delivered a request from my Lord unto you concerning a suit depending in the Court of Requests against an insolent tenant, that for the space of many years hath neither paid any rent nor will show his lease for my Lord's satisfaction. And now being by a late mischance in my coach prevented from the hope of any present opportunity to meet you at the Court, I do earnestly entreat you that whensoever my Lord's counsel shall move against one Thomas Coe of Walter Belchamp for the discovery of his lease and satisfaction of his rent, either you yourself or Master Wylbrome will give the cause that expedition as in your favourable justice it shall deserve, and prevent the dilatory pleadings which the injustice of Coe's cause will offer unto you. And thus commending myself very heartily unto you, commit you to the Almighty. From Hackney, this 20th November, 1602.
Your assured friend,
This tells us she took some part in de Vere's financial affairs, and that she had a coach, which puts her in the top echelon of citizenry, as few could afford coaches.
We also see she is a competent writer, well educated, gracious, and of an open, honest, and straightforward disposition, and yet firm in her demeanour.
In 1597 Elizabeth Trentham had bought King's Place for the 3 of them. It was so called because Henry 8th, Edward 6th, and Queen Elizabeth had each stayed there. The balcony is said to have been 168 feet long. A near neighbour was apparently connected with a publishing house. De Vere now had an idyllic setting for whatever he wanted to do.
So what is he doing during his last 13 years? We know he had already written to Burghley asking that his £1,000 annual grant be commuted to a lump sum payment of £5,000 which shows how incompetent he was in financial matters. We know he was writing letters to Burghley until Burghley's death in 1598 and after that to his successor in office, Burghley's second son Robert Cecil, 'begging' letters as his detractors call them, asking for preferment. These letters do not become his station in life. They border on the obsequious. He wrote about the tin mines in Cornwall. He did have some originally, but must have parted with them earlier. He asked for the Governorship of the isle of Jersey, the Presidency of Wales, a monopoly. It was useless, the Queen and the Cecils politely ignored all his many requests and gave these benefits to others. The Queen, despite whatever she may have implied to him privately, as he hinted in his correspondence, apparently had him pegged at his £1,000 a year for life. For whatever he had done or was doing - he referred to it as his 'office' - that was all he was going to get. Here's one such letter written to Lord Burghley in 1594. He might have said 'I'm sorry I couldn't send my attorney to the appointment with you as he was out of town, please at your early convenience see him or other of my counsel about my case dated xx.' But he says this instead:
My very good Lord, If it please you to remember that about half a year or thereabouts past I was a suitor to your Lordship for your favour; that whereas I found sundry abuses, whereby both Her Majesty and myself were, in my office greatly hindered, that it might please your Lordship that I might find such favour from you that I might have the same redressed. At which time I found so good forwardness in your Lordship that I found myself greatly beholden for the same; yet, by reason that at that time mine attorney was departed the town, I could not then send him to your appointment. But hoping that the same disposition still remaineth towards the justness of my cause, and that your Lordship, to whom my estate is so well known, and how much it standeth me on not to neglect, as heretofore, such occasions as to amend the same as may arise from mine office; I most heartily desire your Lordship that it will please you to give care to the state of my cause, and at your best leisure admit either my attorney or other of my counsel at law to inform your Lordship, that the same being perfectly laid open to your Lordship, I may enjoy the favour from you which I most earnestly desire. In which doing I shall think myself singularly beholden in this, as I have been in other respects.
This 7th July, 1594.
Your Lordship's ever to command,
There are only 4 sentences in this entire letter. Unfortunately it doesn't tell us what his office is, or what the suit is he's asking to be decided in his favour.
De Vere was never awarded any political or military career with the Queen, but is known to have written a number of plays which were performed at the Court for the Queen's enjoyment. His annual lifetime grant is most likely connected with play writing and performing, because that seems to be about all that he did with his life. There is only one incident that has survived, apparently, as to his actual performing. It's been quoted often, but as it's all we seem to have, here it is. The story goes that as he was performing in one of his plays in his earlier, sunnier days at Court, the Queen deliberately dropped one of her gloves at his feet as he was in mid speech. It's said that without breaking the metre of his verses he stooped and picked up the glove while saying
Although engag'd on this high embassy,
Yet stoop we to pick up our cousin's glove
then continued on in his play with its unbroken iambic pentameters as though nothing had happened. That was the world he excelled in. No wonder he had a string of poet/playwrights as his secretaries. But since he more or less gradually retired from the Court as he grew older, his interest shifted from Court performances to having an acting company of players who performed in the City of London or the provinces. And we're told that his players performed in the provinces from 1580 to 1590. But in 1600 an anonymous play "The Weakest goeth to the Wall" was published with a title page saying it was acted by the "Earl of Oxford's servants." In 1601 another anonymous play was published also acted by de Vere's men.
Various noblemen had each a company of players, called 'servants.' Actors without patronage were treated at law as mere vagabonds. The noblemen were responsible for their 'servants' good conduct and gave them protection and patronage, meaning the noblemen paid them if their earnings from performances were insufficient to be self supporting.
In 1602 The earls of Oxford and Worcester amalgamated their companies of players. The Privy Council wrote to the Lord Mayor indicating that the Queen is now 'requiring' the Lord Mayor to allot them officially their favourite playing location, the 'Boar's Head.' There were several with this name. And the particular one designated here is not named by address. But the fact that it is a Boar's Head is probably related to de Vere having the Blue Boar as part of his hereditary insignia. This is about as much as we know as to what de Vere was doing in his last 13 years. Except for one more traumatic event in his life.
De Vere had been required to attend the trial of the Earl of Essex in 1601, at Westminster Hall. This was about 2 years before the Queen's death. It was a trial for treason. The Earl of Southampton was also on trial with Essex. The 'earls, barons, and judges of the land' sat at the trial 'according to their degrees.' From the abstract of the court proceedings it appears that each peer in turn had to pronounce 'whether ...Essex... Southampton... is guilty of this treason whereupon he hath been indicted, as you take it upon your honour or no?' for each accused in turn. The trial only took a day. Both earls were convicted. Essex was executed. The Earl of Southampton was sentenced to life imprisonment but obtained a reprieve two years later, when, on his accession to the throne, James 1st had him released from prison.
De Vere knew Southampton well. At one time there was a proposal by Burghley, who was then Wardmaster of Southampton, for him to marry de Vere's eldest daughter, but either he refused or she would not have him because it fell through, and Burghley fined him £5,000 in consequence of this default.
Some Oxfordians think Southampton was the child of the Queen by de Vere. In my opinion the evidence is insufficient, and fails for two reasons. First, if he were the illegitimate son of de Vere by the Queen, de Vere could not have approved the marriage of Southampton to one of de Vere's daughters by Ann Cecil, unless he was convinced beyond doubt that she was not his child. But his life shows that he never really knew, and therefore the marriage might be incestuous. Next, I think it fails because the Southamptons brought him up as their own son, their 2nd son, which seems unreasonable if he had nothing to do with either of them.
It's rather sad that in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth died he actually had to write asking to be permitted to exercise his hereditary right to perform his hereditary functions at the coronation of King James. If he did take part, the standing for many hours, his lameness, and 'not an able body' must have been a painful experience. He was probably granted this permission because James was a literary monarch, as much or more keen on plays, acting, and playwrights as was Queen Elizabeth. This was the King James of the King James Version of the Bible fame. James appointed de Vere to the Privy Council, de Vere at last was given back the hereditary rights to the Forest of Essex which his family had lost in political struggle before his time, and over the return of which to him Elizabeth had procrastinated for so long. And James confirmed and continued his annual grant of £1,000.
I have tried to estimate Elizabeth Trentham's age at her death in 1612. The Queen had died at age 70, but that was exceptional. Anne Cecil had died at age 32. Probably 55 was an average life span, as many women were worn out through child bearing in an age without contraceptives. If Elizabeth Trentham died at about age 55 in 1612, she would have been about 34 in 1591-2 when she married de Vere, who would have been about 41 at the time.
In 1608-9, when she was a widow, and their son Henry was about 15, and a teenager, she sold King's Place. She then apparently sold some of her own land as well and bought back Hedingham Castle, so that her son would have the hereditary Earls of Oxford estate.
Burghley did well for his granddaughters. Elizabeth, the eldest, married in 1595 William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby, a patron of an acting company and reputedly writer of comedies, though none have survived with his name.
Bridget, the second daughter, married in 1599, the year after Burghley's death. But by then the two unmarried daughters were in the guardianship of Robert Cecil, their uncle and Principal Secretary of State. Bridget married Francis Norris, who became Lord Norris of Rycote on the death of his grandfather in 1600.
Susan married Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery, in 1604, the year her father died.
Of course all three granddaughters of Burghley were buried at Westminster Abbey.
These three daughters of de Vere, brought up by Burghley, would probably have learned to have the same attitude to de Vere as had their grandfather. Elizabeth, the eldest, would have seen first hand how de Vere treated her mother when he returned to her between 1582 and her death in 1588. All three would probably have known of Anne's piteous letter to de Vere, protesting her innocence of anything and confirming her love for him. When she died he unceremoniously turned them all over to Burghley and at least partially disfigured their birthright, Hedingham Castle. Even the name Elizabeth was not a de Vere or Burghley name. She was named after the Queen, who had conspired with de Vere to keep him away from his wife.
From all they learned as they grew up in the Burghley household, de Vere's daughters would have known their father to be a lewd wastrel, a drunkard, and worse, who consorted with low characters in the theatre business, and who had frittered away perhaps the greatest accumulation of wealth in the land next to the monarch's. These children of de Vere's were probably taught to obliterate his shameful parentage from their memories; they were Cecils through and through. If you doubt what I say here, I suggest you might re-read what Burghley caused to be written on the family tomb after the death of his daughter who was de Vere's wife (chapter 7).
Before we leave de Vere we should look at a sample of his handwriting. Here are the last few lines of a letter in July 1600 to Robert Cecil, Lord Treasurer, asking for his help in obtaining the Governorship of the Isle of Jersey
The page seems to have deteriorated during the last 400 years, but there are no blots. He tends to write uphill. Here are the words in this extract from the letter
there were a time to receive benefits and good turns from princes. Well, I will not use more words, for they may rather argue mistrust than confidence. I will assure myself and not doubt of your good office both in this but in any honourable friendship I shall have cause to use you. Hackney.
Your loving and assured friend
We've tried to give a true and honest account of what is known about the life of de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, based as much as possible on existing documentation and 3rd party evidence, and not on hearsay, and including what is known of the better as well as the baser side of his character. It seems to me that after all his triumphs, failures and vicissitudes he remains a candidate for the elusive Shakespeare, and we leave him now.
From this point on we'll devote ourselves to Shakespeare's works and test what they say against de Vere's life. If de Vere fails this test we'll pick the next most likely candidate and repeat the life story process and test this next life against what Shakespeare wrote about, and continue on until we find a life that fits. Somewhere in Elizabeth's reign there must have been lived a life that fits. All we have to do now is find it. Then the evidence will lead us to a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt.
|To Chapter 7||To Chapter 9|
TO HOME PAGE