Chapter 4

“William Shakes-speare”
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn

Chapter Four


THE YEAR following Elizabeth’s accession had seen the official establishment of the Reformed Church as the Church of England. Although many of the aristocrats remained Catholics, they were forbidden by law to employ the Roman ritual.

But the embers were only covered, not extinguished, and they continued to smoulder, ejecting sporadic flame, until eventually they burst into a conflagration which involved Catholics and Protestants in a life-and-death struggle, a final showdown between the might of Spain and the resolute force of England. Its prolonged heat and glow tinged every aspect of English life, profoundly affecting politics, literature, and the stage, no less than daily affairs and the well-being of the people.

Elizabeth had begun by endeavoring to chart a middle course between Catholicism and the Reformed Church, refusing to renew the ties with Rome severed by her father. She was wise enough not to be too drastic: she herself liked an impressive ritual, and she restored the Carnival In 1558 or ’59 she said to Feria, the Spanish Ambassador, “I do not intend to be called Head of the Church, but I shall not let my subjects’ money be carried out of the realm to the pope any more; the bishops are a set of lazy scamps.” And later she told Mendoza, “I have never castigated the Catholics except when they would not acknowledge me as their queen; in spiritual matters I believe as they do.” (1) Indeed, according to Macaulay, “A crucifix, with wax lights burning round it, stood in her private chapel. She always spoke with disgust and horror of the marriage of priests.”

Religious services were uniform in externals, but some latitude was allowed the bishop of the diocese and the incumbent of the parish. In the people’s view, “Psalm-singing and heresy were both of foreign origin” and therefore to be regarded with suspicion. But the Queen maintained a nice balance, and, as the Protestant party waxed in strength, held it disorderly for the proceedings of Protestantism, a State affair, to be discussed in the pulpit. In the course of a sermon at St. Paul’s upon an occasion when she was present in company with de Silva, then Spanish Ambassador, Dean Nowell “rather roughly handled” the subject of images. The Queen interrupted, crying out sharply from her seat: “To your text, Mr. Dean! Leave that; we have heard enough of that! To your subject.”

It will be recalled that Dean Laurence Nowell, brother of the Dean of St. Paul’s, was for a time Lord Oxford’s tutor, as the Puritan Golding had been. This fact may help to explain why, although Oxford was brought up in the Catholic ritual, it is impossible to tell from his writings what his own leanings may have been; often they were patently toward skepticism.

The far-reaching intentions of Philip II of Spain did not become apparent even after he sent the Duke of Alva to the Netherlands to put down Protestantism by force in 1567. It was actually the Earl of Oxford who, thirteen years later, was to sound the warning to Elizabeth of the danger arising from Spain’s tireless intrigues with the Catholics of England to establish Mary Stuart upon the English throne. He himself, however, seems to have remained throughout his life personally aloof from the contests between the Papists and the adherents of the Reformed Church. Undoubtedly he and Elizabeth saw eye to eye here, as upon so many other subjects, and it was only when her safety as Queen was threatened that he took a stand.

Oxford’s opposition to the Puritans stemmed from their interference with the theatre. Leicester was to become more and more identified as the head of the Puritan movement, drawing into his orbit his nephew, Philip Sidney, and the poet Spenser. Spenser, although always a friend and admirer of Oxford, was the most articulate of them all, his Faerie Queene being a poetic allegory of a chivalric form of Puritanism, with Una standing for Elizabeth and the scarlet-clad Duessa for Catholicism, symbolized by Mary Queen of Scots.

Lord Oxford had pursued his study of law at Gray’s Inn not with the intention of making it his profession but in order to fit himself for fulfilling his responsibilities to the State, as a member of the House of Lords and in whatever further capacities might be required, as well as to equip himself for looking after his numerous landed properties. Clearly his expectation was that he would follow a martial career in the tradition of the Veres who had borne so influential a part in England’s development as a nation. Incidentally, much more than law was taught at the Inns of the Court in Elizabeth’s time. Here young noblemen were schooled in the ways of the court—in courtly and diplomatic language and behavior, in dancing, fencing, all the arts of a gentleman. Plays and masques were given, in which they took part, as writers and actors. Only the sons of the nobility and the high gentry were admitted.

It was the Thirteenth Earl of Oxford who had helped to win the fight for the Lancastrians at Bosworth Field against the Yorkists under Richard III, resulting in the coronation of the Earl of Richmond as Henry VII. For this he had been richly rewarded and had stood as godfather, in 1491, to the King’s infant son, who was to become Henry VIII.

The Fifteenth Earl had carried the crown at the coronation of Anne Boleyn as Queen in 1533. He had married the wealthy Elizabeth Trussell of Warwickshire, near Stratford, from whom Edward, the Seventeenth Earl, inherited his estate on the Avon.

The Eleventh Earl had been one of Henry V’s ablest lieutenants and had held a command at the Battle of Agincourt. (It is interesting that in the early play, The Famous Victories of King Henry the Fifth, which constitutes a kind of matrix for the dramas of King Henry IV and King Henry V, this Earl of Oxford was given a conspicuous part as the King’s adviser and principal lieutenant, though in a later revision a maturer hand directed all the glory upon the King.)

Robert de Vere, the Ninth Earl, married the grand-daughter of King Edward III, a cousin of Richard II. While commanding an army against Bolingbroke, he was defeated and subsequently banished by the Parliament of the victorious Henry IV. He died in exile in France, gored to death by a wild boar. Curiously enough, seven generations later, Edward’s father, the Sixteenth Earl, was threatened with a similar fate, also in France. While hunting the wild boar in sport, he had alighted from his horse and strolled away from the vicinity of his companions, when the infuriated beast rushed out of the bushes and charged him. With only his rapier for defense, the Earl slew the boar, to the great amazement of the French huntsmen. These incidents are particularly striking in view of the fact that the name Vere suggests Verres, which means boar. The family cognizance was the Blue Boar, their coat of arms displaying two boars, as well as a Harpy and a Mullioned Star.

The first Vere, Aubrey, as we have said, fought at the Battle of Hastings, receiving the Conqueror’s half-sister in marriage and also the gift of many valuable estates. His grandson and namesake was rewarded for an heroic victory over the Persians during the Crusades with the recognizance of the five-pointed silver star, or mullet. Leland’s Itinerary tells how, in 1098,

the night coming on and waxing dark, the Christians being four miles from Antioch . . . God willing [their] safety, showed a white Star or Molette of five points . . . which to every man’s sight did light and arrest upon the standard of Albry the Third, there shining excessively.(2)

Queen Elizabeth, however, had her own plans for the young Earl of Oxford, although she yielded after a time to his plea, allowing him to join the Earl of Sussex as an aide in the campaign of April and May, 1570, to put down the revolt in the north which had been incited by Northumberland, Westmoreland, and other Catholic nobles. It was for the Duke of Norfolk’s share in the ambitious plot of which this was the initial outburst that he was ultimately convicted and executed for treason, the plan having been to marry him to the Queen of Scots and put her and himself upon the throne of England. The most strenuous efforts on the part of his cousin, Lord Oxford, failed to save him.

When the revolt in the north had been quelled, Sussex sent his aide back to London. The young Earl’s arrival at Vere House is described by Stowe in his Annals:

. . . and so to his house by London Stone, with four score gentlemen in a livery of Reading tawny, and chains of gold about their necks, before him; and one hundred tall yeomen in the like livery to follow him, without chains, but all having his cognizance of the slue Boar embroidered on their left shoulder. [Vere House was] a fair and large built house pertaining to the prior of Tortington in Sussex, since to the Earl of Oxford. . . . Which house hath a fair garden thereto, lying on the west side thereof.(3)

(It is on London Stone that Jack Cade strikes his staff, in 2 Henry VI: IV.6, and proclaims himself Mortimer, Lord of the city.)

As a result of his association with Sussex in this campaign a firm friendship grew up between the younger and the older man which was to last until the death of Sussex thirteen years later, with Oxford ever Sussex’s “staunchest supporter at Court.” But this deep loyalty was to place Lord Oxford in opposition to the powerful Leicester, sworn enemy to Sussex; and, with a curious consistency, other situations were to develop to widen the cleavage between these two and thus affect the young Earl’s friendship with Philip Sidney, Leicester’s nephew. Oxford seems never to have troubled to be politic but to have been guided by the dictates of his heart, with the result that he got into the kind of trouble sanguine, spontaneous people usually do get into.

He had a respect, amounting to a religious code, for the truth. His name, Vere, of course means truth—literally truly, verily—and he was ever mindful of the analogy. The motto, Vero Nihil Verius, which he caused to be inscribed upon his coat of arms, can be read, Nothing truer than truth, or Nothing truer than Vere.

The young Oxford’s relationship with the Earl of Sussex had the effect of encouraging and channelling his already enthusiastic interest in dramatic production, for, as Lord Chamberlain, Sussex maintained a company of actors for court performances; so perhaps his star was guiding him, after all.

England was ruled and dominated by Elizabeth, the last of the absolute monarchs. Determined to make her reign peaceful and prosperous, the Queen was wise enough to profit by the mistakes of her predecessors, not only those of her half-sister, the religious fanatic, Mary Tudor, but also those responsible for the long ruinous period which had begun with Richard II and continued until her grandfather, Henry VII, became King. This had been the era during which the great feudal nobles, through their greed for power, had contended among themselves in the Wars of the Roses, draining England’s lifeblood.

Now, under the rule of this Queen who, in 1558, had ascended the throne at the age of twenty-five, the great Catholic nobles were no longer all-powerful, though they were dying hard. Elizabeth’s ministers were chosen from a different stratum: Sir William Cecil, after 1571 Lord Burghley, who was to be her chief minister and counsellor for forty years, the Protestant Robert Dudley, afterward Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Nicholas Bacon and later his son Francis, Christopher Hatton, and Walter Ralegh. This was a “new crowd” in government and court life, none of them save Dudley, who was the son of Northumberland, having belonged to the nobility until Cecil was elevated. Despite Leicester’s impetuosity, bad judgment and personal ambitions, they kept the ship of state steady upon perilous seas, Cecil and Leicester acting at times as salutary checks upon each other. But the actual ruler was the Queen, one of the greatest sovereigns in history. She made the vital decisions after listening to her counsellors. Vacillating, wilful, procrastinating, mendacious, cruel, unreliable, and penurious as she was, she yet had the inestimable and ineffable quality of greatness.

Her policy was right for the times; so were her arrogance, her sense of drama, her shrewdness and tact in her relations with the people, for whom she put on a magnificent show. As she rode forth in her gilded coach upon her royal progresses through streets decorated with green branches and festoons, accompanied by her train of handsomely dressed and mounted courtiers and maids, trumpets, drums, church-bells celebrated her advent, thrilling the populace.

All the streets of the city through which she was to pass were freshly sanded and gravelled, and the houses hung with cloth of arras, rich car-pets and silk; but Cheapside, then called “the golden Chepe,” made a [great] display . . . being hung with cloth of gold and silver, and velvets of all colours. All the crafts of London were ranged in their liveries from St. Michael the Quern as far as Aldgate.(4)

The Queen was gracious and courteous to all, allowing the common citizens free access to her presence, accepting and reading their petitions on the spot with a regal condescension which won their hearts. For almost the entire span of her long reign the people of England adored their Good Queen Bess.

The only member of the old feudal aristocracy who was close to Elizabeth was Edward de Vere, and he was essentially a literary man, poet and dramatist, patron of writers and players. For an indeterminate period between 1570 and 1581, no other man, not even Leicester, stood in a more intimate relation to her than he did. The passion they shared for literature and the drama drew them together and, though a stronger one was to unite them for a time, it was this which outlasted all others. While the Queen’s Lords Steward and Lords Chamberlain were in several cases members of the old nobility—for example, Henry Stanley, Fourth Earl of Derby, and Henry FitzAlan, Twelfth Earl of Arundel—the fact is that they were never particularly influential.

Upon his coming of age in April 1571, (5) the Earl of Oxford took his seat in the House of Lords, the occasion being the opening of Parliament, for the first time in five years, by the Queen. It had become imperative to raise funds for defense. A great ground-swell of Catholic unrest expressing itself in the Ridolfi plot, of which the northern revolt had given the first tangible evidence, threatened to undermine the stability of the kingdom. Elizabeth had been excommunicated by the Pope. And the Catholics were determined, with powerful help from abroad if necessary, to supplant her with the Catholic Mary Stuart.

The procession to the Houses of Parliament was one of bright and imposing pageantry. Attired in her imperial robes and wearing a coronet of gold set with pearls and precious stones, Her Majesty rode in a “coach drawn by two palfreys covered with crimson velvet . . . embossed and embroidered very richly.” (6)

The Earl of Oxford, as Lord Great Chamberlain, entering the House of Lords for the first time, carried the Queen’s train, as she was conducted from Westminster Abbey to the House of Lords, taking precedence over other noblemen, including the Earl Marshal and the Lord Admiral. Here, in a speech retailing the benefits bestowed by the Queen, the Lord Keeper cited the delivery from “the bondage of Roman tyranny”; he praised “Her Majesty’s wisdom in governing,” her “clemency and mercy. No Prince of this realm,” he said, “hash had his hands so clean from blood.”

Elizabeth, resolved to maintain a just neutrality between the Reformed Church and the Catholics, ignored the bills in which she considered the Commons were going too far. The position of the Earl of Oxford was likewise impartial as he sat in his hereditary place in the House of Lords witnessing the maneuvers in the sectarian struggle. Although a member of the old aristocracy, he was the son of a noble who had joined the Reformed Church and the ward of its titular leader. Upon this subject, as we have observed, he and his sovereign appeared to see more or less eye to eye; in any case, she had his loyal allegiance.

This year that he came of age was the beginning of the young Earl’s heyday. High in the Queen’s favor, he was to be for the next ten years fortunate in almost all he undertook. Of course there were minor troubles and anxieties, even violent emotional crises, but during the 1570’s he reached a dazzling peak of human eminence and of human accomplishment as well.

He himself recorded candidly, as was his wont, the relationship in which he stood to the Queen during those early years, in a sonnet written in a form which he was to make familiar and beloved. It was entitled, Love Thy Choice, and was signed with his name.

Who taught thee first to sigh, alas! my heart?
Who taught thy tongue the woeful words of plaint?
Who filled your eyes with tears of bitter smart?
Who gave thee grief and made thy joys to faint?
Who first did paint with colours pale thy face?
Who first did break thy sleeps of quiet rest?
Above the rest in court who gave thee grace?
Who made thee strive in honour to be best?
In constant truth to bide so firm and sure,
To scorn the world regarding but thy friends?
With patient mind each passion to endure,
In one desire to settle to the end?
Love then thy choice wherein such choice thou bind,
As nought but death may ever change thy mind.

Earle of Oxenforde


1. F. Chamberlin: The Sayings of Q. Eliz.; pp. 123, 166.

2. Vol. VI, p. 40. Cit. by Ward; p. 4.

3. Stowe’s Annals; p. 34. (Our italics.)

4. Strickland: Lives of the Queens of England, vol. III, p. 149.

5. His birthday was April 12, old style, April 23, by the new.

6. Ward; p. 52; quot. D’Ewes: Journals; p. 130.

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