THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
ON DECEMBER 2, 1568, Edward de Vere’s mother died. Although her second marriage, to Charles Tyrrell, had occurred with unseemly haste, she was buried beside her first husband, the Sixteenth Earl, at Earl’s Colne. Tyrrell survived her by less than two years, bequeathing “unto the Earl of Oxford one great horse that his lordship gave me.” But never was “his lordship” heard to mention this rather innocuous gentleman with anything but contempt.
From a business letter which the Countess of Oxford wrote to Cecil after her first husband’s death, it appears that her relations with her son may have been severed: “My son who is under your charge,” she says, without sending any loving message. However, Lady Mary Vere, Edward’s sister, seems to have remained at home until her mother’s death. Like her brother, the girl was exceptionally articulate, though where he was said to have the “honied tongue” of the poet, hers was described as sharp; indeed, she was more than once in later years called a shrew.
The Queen had from the beginning taken a marked interest in the young Earl. Though not actually a royal prince, he was virtually so. He was soon on terms of affectionate ease with Elizabeth, spending a great deal of time in her society, accompanying her on her progresses and, as the years went by, enjoying association with her cultivated and volatile mind. In the Calendared State Papers there is noted a remark someone made to the effect that “the Queen wooed the Earl of Oxford but he would not fall in.” His reluctance may have been due partly to the coltishness of youth, for to a mettlesome boy in his ‘teens a woman in her middle thirties seems beyond the pale of amorous attraction; but his waywardness amused her, and she was indulgent toward him. She was flattered by the response of his eager intellect. It pleased her to pose as the Muse of a budding poet whose worth she could already estimate and whose high achievement she was wise enough to foresee. She was an astute judge of human quality and could recognize genius when she saw it. Elizabeth was fond of Leicester till the end of his life, but it was for other qualities than those of the intellect. It has been said of him that “Wise word or witty never passed his lips. Cool counsel lay beyond him.” (1)
However, even genius must be stocked with experience and knowledge if it is to attain to its full expression. This the Queen knew, and she provided a rich and stimulating milieu. Great as Elizabeth’s debt to her young protege was to be, it was perhaps no greater than his debt to her, certainly if experience of frustration and pain are as necessary to the development of a poet as acquaintance with beauty and the flavor of joy. She gave him a varied experience and a violent one, more than he wanted of both, in the end, and more than he would have sought. But this poet, like lesser ones, was made as well as born. (2)
Throughout his first eighteen years in London the Earl lived intensely. By nature exuberant, he was brilliant, popular, full of mischief; and he had an appetite for magnificence together with his enormous gusto for human affairs. In after years, his evaluation of these days was to alter; he was to look back upon them with bitterness, deploring their waste and mockery, the misplaced faith, the sensual excesses, the cynical hypocrisies and vacuous merriment. Still, he had been a part of it all, and thus it had become a part of him, developing as well as disillusioning, cultivating as well as perverting his gifts, shaping the man and above all educating him.
For here he learned the ways of worldlings as well as of scholars; of politicians, prelates, soldiers, statesmen, monarchs, and minions; of diplomats, adventurers, opportunists, sycophants, and clowns; of the courageous and the craven alike; of idealists and knaves; of the ambitious and the meek, the foolish and the wise. All these passed before his penetrating eye, unwittingly yielding up their secrets to an intelligence which was able to divine every impulse and emotion because it was enhanced by clear judgment and by an imagination which could encompass and understand them all.
He learned much about the ways of women, noting their variety, observing their wiles: the great ladies who were strumpets at heart and those who were saints; the haughty and jealous; the witty and dull; the cultivated, studious, and modest; the bedizened old and the dewy, vulnerable young. He learned how cupidity could confound, envy corrode, and slander destroy. He saw men go to the block for their mistakes. When he was twenty-two his own first cousin and close friend, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, met this fate; and it was then that his proud young spirit first tasted defeat and felt the galling sting of seeing goodness and mercy impotent in the face of implacable authority.
Even a genius must write of what he knows and has felt, must draw upon the impressions stored in his own consciousness. The Earl of Oxford’s nourishment came from a rich source.
Life at Elizabeth’s court was brilliant and eventful; and the court was wherever the Queen herself was lodged. In London she lived at Whitehall, but it was at Greenwich that most of the masques and interludes were given, and later the plays—embodying, after the classical manner of Aristophanes and others, allusions to contemporary persons and events—which Oxford himself was to write at her behest. Here many a tilt and tourney were held before the Queen. In these also he was to take a leading part, becoming celebrated in 1571 as the champion spear-shaker of the lists.
At Hampton Court Her Majesty received foreign ambassadors in a “room hung with splendid tapestries, and shining with gold and silver.” In the great hall, here too, plays were staged, the Master of Revels providing materials for scenery and costumes and arranging the mechanical details of the performance. On certain gala occasions the courtiers pitched their tents in its square when guests, a goodly proportion of them from foreign lands, were so numerous as to tax the capacity of the palace.
At Windsor Castle Elizabeth’s love of opulence and display found full scope: there she basked in luxury. She was a true daughter of her imperious, lusty father and the vivacious, pleasure-loving Anne Boleyn. She was fond of saying she was “mere English,” and this was true; but although, like Henry, Elizabeth bore her share in keeping “England merrie,” like him also she had an exalted sense of her country’s destiny and played as famous a part as he to make it dominant and secure.
Near the Castle at Windsor her royal barge, with its two ample cabins and sumptuous ornamentation, lay at anchor in the river. During the long twilight hours of summer it could be seen gliding along under the trees, bearing the Queen accompanied by a group of her courtiers and maids of honor, whose gay talk and light laughter sounded above the soft obbligato of the lutes. According to her own statement, (3) Elizabeth maintained sixty musicians; but this was partly because of her enthusiasm for the dance.
(In The England of Shakespeare, Edwin Goadby remarks, apropos of Elizabeth’s luxurious barge, “A very little exaggeration gave to Shakespeare his description of Cleopatra’s.” But he makes no suggestion as to how a little provincial boy in Stratford might have seen the one at Windsor Castle.)
She had another palace at Richmond, in Surrey, where she spent the longest periods of time and where it pleasured her to “climb the hill and walk in the park, discoursing to great men or personal favourites.” (4) Still another place to which she was especially attached was Nonesuch Palace. She also had a smaller palace at Chelsea, besides “The Lodge at Islington, The Grove at Newington, and the Dairy at Barnelms.”
The young Earl of Oxford would have taken many walks with her at Richmond. He would have been especially fond of a vault in St. James’s Fields where a clear echo could be heard, suggestive of a scene in one of his most famous poems. He spent a great deal of time at the court at Windsor (we have quoted the record of an illness he had there) and would have taken part in the languid excursions upon the river—or in some of them, for he was young and active, and a little of this would have palled unless the talk were sufficiently vivacious and interesting.
When the Queen was at Whitehall, he would go to her from Cecil House via the Thames, conveyed either by a hired boat or by his guardian’s barge with its liveried waterman. If Her Majesty were at Richmond, they would push upstream; perhaps she had sent for “her Turk,” as she teasingly called him, to read classical verse, or Dante and Ariosto in the Italian, or to dance with her or play on the virginals or the lute. He was fonder of music than she and became a composer esteemed by the trained musicians of the time. “The Earl of Oxford’s March” is still played in our concert halls today.
Cecil House, to insure ample space for its gardens, had been built somewhat back from the river, but it was only a few minutes’ walk from the public wharf at the foot of Ivy Lane. Many of the mansions fronted on the Thames and had their own river-terraces and steps, with private tilt-boats, barges, and watermen.
Young Lord Oxford would be handsomely and jauntily dressed, “in a black satin doublet,” as Ward says, “velvet breeches, and silk stockings supported by silver-buckled garters. On his feet the broadtoed, flat-footed soft leather shoes of the period. At his side a light rapier, passed through a silver-studded belt. On his head a velvet cap with a plume of pheasant-feathers fastened to one side.” Perhaps he had been out that morning for an hour’s hawking, riding on one of his “four geldings” westward along the Strand and through the country to Kensington, his voice ringing out in the clear call that brought the bird back to his wrist: “Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come, bird, come!” He would still be flushed from the lively canter, his hazel eyes alert, but his reddish-brown hair smoothed now; slim, graceful, assured in his bearing. He was of slight build, not tall, delicately made and with a fine carriage. (5)
The Thames even in the heart of London was clear and pure, bright with darting salmon and graced by swans moving about in their aimless elegance, “as white as Leinster wool.” Many tall masts were silhouetted above its banks, and watermen punctuated with their lusty baritone cry of “Heave and ho, rumbelow!” the intermittent splash and clap of the water against the sides of their boats.
The streets of the city were narrow, congested, and mean, with sanitation, if such it could be called, so primitive that all kinds of smells constantly reeked to heaven. It was no wonder that the plague, “the sweating sickness,” struck from time to time, sending the Queen, and all who were privileged to escape, fleeing to the country, as the elect of Florence had done in Boccaccio’s day. Yet rising in the midst of this teeming ugliness stood the fabulous St. Paul’s, covering three-and-a-half acres and gleaming like a vision above the dark crooked houses which hemmed it in. In this sharp contrast were epitomized the extremes of squalor and splendor, of degradation and aspiration which, by some mysterious law of balance, produced the vital and magnificent epoch of England’s renaissance.
Here, along the glittering artery of trade and social commerce, there was always a festive air. At night it was Venetian in its romantic animation. Wherries plied to and fro. Torches bobbed on the terraces lighting ladies and their escorts down the steps to the barges waiting at anchor. They might be off to Richmond, the ladies in their billowing brocade gowns and high-heeled colored shoes, masks hiding the upper part of their faces, their gallants beside them bowing with a wide sweep of their laced cloaks. Or they might be headed toward Westminster to take part in one of the masques or revels for which the Queen had an insatiable zest and which she employed to beguile restless ambassadors and other visiting dignitaries.
“On one soft April evening,” we are told by a historian of the period,
when the silvery Thames rippled invitingly between its banks, Elizabeth with her retinue entered the gilded state barge manned by liveried oarsmen, and rowed up towards the city…. Swans followed in its wake as the barge glided past the green fields and lovely gardens lying between Westminster and London. The Thames watermen congregated at the public stairs spread news of the Queen’s approach, and very soon reaped a rich harvest from eager sightseers all anxious to catch a glimpse of the young Queen as she passed slowly along. Court musicians played with a will, but their efforts were quite outdone in volume by the loyal citizens who . . . had thoughtfully provided themselves with whatever noise-producing instruments came first to hand . . . drums, trumpets, flutes, their efforts being augmented by the ringing of church-bells, discharging of cannon, to say nothing of squibs hurled into the air by exuberant youngsters. Grey evening purpled into dusk, the lights of London twinkled . . . but not till ten o’clock did the royal barge return to Whitehall, where Sargeant-porter Keyes, keeper of the water-gate, awaited it with his men and torch-bearers. Lord Robert Dudley, master of the horse, handed out the Queen….(6)
These were the scenes to which the young Earl of Oxford had come from the bastioned walls of Castle Hedingham; it was into this sparkling life that he was caught up and, during youth and early manhood, given a conspicuous and heady part.
But through it all his prime interest, which was in learning, in the great literary works of the past, never relaxed. From the wildest reveals he would return to the library at Cecil House, where there was a richer, more thrilling world to explore among volumes in Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. He devoured the works of distinguished contemporaries too: Ronsard, du Bellay, Belleau, the great Huguenot poet du Bartas, later of Montaigne, then those of D’Aubigné, Malherbe, and the historian de Thou, men of his own age. “Sir William Pickering in Paris, and Sir John Mason, had orders to buy for [Cecil] all the attractive new books published in France, and Chamberlain in Brussels had a similar commission.” (7)
The feeling grew that de Vere was putting too much emphasis upon scholarship. While he was still at Gray’s Inn, during 1569, Thomas Underdoune, in dedicating to him a translation of An Aethiopian History, took him to task for this:
To the Right Honourable Edward de Vere, Lord Bulbeck, Earl of Oxenford, Lord Great Chamberlain of England: I do not deny but that in many matters, I mean matters of learning, a nobleman ought to have a sight; but to be too much addicted that way, I think is not good. Now of all knowledge fit for a noble gentleman, I suppose the knowledge of histories is most seeming. For furthering whereof I have Englished a passing fine and witty history written in Greek by Heliodorus; and for right good cause consecrated the same to your Lordship. For such virtues be in your honour, so haughty courage joined with great skill, such sufficiency in learning, so good nature and common sense that in your honour is, I think expressed the right pattern of a noble gentleman….(8)
At this time the Earl was nineteen years of age.
That he had been taking part in the social life of his young friends is attested by the record that he and his cousin, the Earl of Rutland, also a Royal Ward, acted as pages in 1565 at the wedding of the Lady Anne Russell to Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick. It was in the following year that he accompanied the Queen on her progress to Oxford University, where he was created Master of Arts. (9)
Ever mindful of his heritage and steeped in the traditions of chivalry, de Vere longed to take part in martial exploits and pleaded with the Queen to send him to the North to join Sussex, who was engaged in putting down the Scottish rebellion. No doubt much reading of history had stimulated his urge to prove himself upon the field of battle, while a temporary escape from Cecil House would surely not have been unwelcome.
In 1569 Anne Cecil was twelve years old, Robert seven, and Elizabeth five. Thomas, the son of a former marriage, was already in his twenties and had spent some time in Paris, where his father, justifying his title of “the Fox,” had set spies to watch and report upon his behavior.
The senior Cecils were a strong-minded and dominating pair; Lady Cecil had been known upon occasion to speak tartly even to the Queen. Very hospitable to the right people, they maintained two elaborate establishments at this time (besides the one Sir William kept for his mother), Cecil House being staffed by eighty servants, “exclusive of those who attended him at Court.” Cecil’s “expenses were £30 a week in his absence, and between £40 and £50 [$1600 to $2000 in our money] when he was present.” 10 His wife, the daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, was a Greek scholar of some note, and she saw to it that her children learned Greek soon after they had mastered Latin. Like de Vere and other Royal Wards, they were subjected to a strict regimen.
It was small wonder that the petite Anne was modest and pliant in manner. She seems to have been closer to her father than to her mother and to have been unusually submissive even for a young girl of that day.
What Anne’s attitude was toward the brilliant young Earl of Oxford is not recorded in the documents; but he must have seemed a very glamorous figure of young manhood to the sheltered demure girl who watched him sally forth to court or come riding home flushed from tennis, shooting, or practice with the lance.
2. It is interesting to learn that the young Thomas Sackville, later Lord Buckhurst, co-author with Thomas Norton of Gorboduc, had been an intimate associate of the Queen’s until sometime after 1563. His will states that he was “in his younger years, by her particular choice and liking, selected to a continual private attendance upon her own person.” Edward de Vere thus had a place prepared for him.