Chapter 8

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

Chapter Eight


IN JANUARY 7, 1575, Lord Oxford set forth with his retinue, consisting, as Burghley noted in his diary, of “two gentlemen, two grooms, one payend, a harbinger, a housekeeper and a trenchman.” Going first to France, he spent about two months in Paris, where he was entertained at the French court by the Royal Family: Henry III, the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici, and Marguerite de Valois. [Oxford may have set forth on January 7, but according to Nina Green, he actually left England in February 1575.]

Valentine Dale, English Ambassador to Paris, wrote Burghley some time later of having “presented my Lord of Oxford unto the French King and Queen, who used him honourably. Amongst other talk the King asked whether he was married. I said he had a fair lady. ‘Il y a donc ce,’ dit-il, ‘un beau couple.‘” (1)

The Earl was eager to proceed to Italy, which was at that time the fountainhead of culture and learning. Dale obtained for him letters from the Venetian Ambassador to the Doge and to his friends in Venice.

I had all passports and commissions for post-horses and letters for my Lord of Oxford that he could require [Dale wrote Burghley]; and indeed he was well liked of, and governed himself very honourably while he was here.(2)

Just before leaving Paris Oxford received welcome news in letters from his father-in-law, to which he responded with elation:

My Lord, Your letters have made me a glad man, for these last have put me in assurance of that good fortune which you formerly mentioned doubtfully. I thank God therefore, with your Lordship, that it hath pleased Him to make me a father, where your Lordship is a grandfather; and if it be a boy I shall likewise be the partaker with you in a greater contentation.

However, he had been striving for so many years to get this trip abroad that he could not go home straightway. And he makes this clear:

But thereby to take occasion to return I am off from that opinion; for now that it hath pleased God to give me a son of my own (as I hope it is) methinks I have the better occasion to travel, sith whatsoever becometh of me I leave behind one to supply my duty and service, either to my Prince or else to my country.

Before quitting Paris, he sent his wife a portrait of himself, just finished—evidently the one now known as the Welbeck, since it was painted in 1575—and a fine pair of horses.

Already he was concerned about funds for his journey, despite the fact that he had taken thought for his expenses before leaving England and had expected co-operation from his father-in-law in obtaining sufficient revenues for his needs. The same letter takes up this matter:

My Lord, whereas I perceive by your Lordship’s letters how hardly money is to be gotten, and that my man writeth he would fain pay unto my creditors some part of that money which I have appointed to be made over unto me; good my Lord, let rather my creditors bear with me awhile, and take their days assured according to that order I left, than I so want in a strange country, unknowing yet what need I may have of money myself. My revenue is appointed, with the profits of my lands, to pay them as I may; and if I cannot yet pay them as I would, yet as I can I will, but preferring my own necessity before theirs. And if at the end of my travels I shall have something left of my provision, they shall have it among them; but before I will not defurnish myself. Good my Lord, have an eye unto my men that I have put in trust. Thus making my commendations to your Lordship and my Lady, I commend you to God; and wherever I am I rest at your Lordship’s commandment. Written the 17th March from Paris.

[Complete letter.]

This was the day on which the Earl left Paris. It is not difficult to infer the sort of inquiries Burghley had been making of Ambassador Dale upon reading that gentleman’s response:

… I will assure your Lordship unfeignedly my Lord of Oxford used himself as orderly and moderately as might be desired, and with great commendation, neither is there any appearance of the likelihood of any other. God send him a Raphael always in his company, which I trust he verily so hath, for Mr. Lewyn is both discreet and of good years, and one that my Lord doth respect… . If the skill of this painter here be liked, I suggest he would be induced to come thither, for he is a Fleming, and liketh not over well of his entertainment here. It seemeth to us he hath done my Lord of Oxford well. My Lord’s device is very proper, witty, and significant.

“My Lord’s device” was evidently Oxford’s play, The Famous Victories of King Henry V. It is of especial interest that Dale found it significant”; for indeed it was.

The Ambassador had already assured Burghley that Lord Oxford had “governed himself very honourably,” but “the Fox,” wishing to find out all he could, had evidently inquired further. He had set a man to spy upon his own son, Thomas, in Paris some years before (just as Polonius set Reynaldo to spy upon Laertes). And it develops that, after receiving Dale’s recommendation of Lewyn, he employed this painter to watch and report to him the doings of Lord Oxford, as will presently be seen.

From Paris the princely little caravan proceeded to Strasburg, where Oxford visited the eminent Protestant educator, Doctor John Sturmius, upon whom the Earl made a lasting impression. Nine years later in a letter to Queen Elizabeth Sturmius was to show how highly he regarded Lord Oxford.

The Earl took leave of Sturmius on April 26, but remained in Germany until some time in May, when he departed for Italy to slake his thirst at those springs of learning which had lured him for so long a while. He skirted Milan, in order, as he wrote Burghley, to avoid the Inquisition of the Bishop, who had the reputation of being a cruel tyrant, and stopped for a time in the valley of the Adige, where ancient Roman roads led past Lake Garda under the towering Julian Alps. Thence he travelled to Verona, to find plays being performed in the old Roman arena, as operas are now. He knew whereof he spoke when he had Hieronimo say, in The Spanish Tragedy (IV. 1. 158-60):

The Italian tragedians were so sharp of wit
That in one hour’s meditation
They would perform anything in action.

The magnificent scenery of the Upper Adige, with its snow-covered mountains glistening in the dazzling sunshine which gilded Lake Garda with magic light, must have delighted the soul of this English poet, as it was to delight those of succeeding generations.

Before the end of May the traveller reached Venice, where he declined a generous offer on the part of Sir Richard Shelley of a furnished house, to continue his journey. During this time he was saturating himself in Italian literature, reading plays especially, meeting and talking with the leading writers and artists.

There is no definite record of Lord Oxford’s whereabouts in the summer months of 1575. William Lewyn, the painter, who had accompanied him thus far from Paris, lost track of his Lordship and reported to Burghley that he did not know whether he had gone to Greece or was still in Italy—”although,” he writes, “my good intention and service … hath always been to obey your honour’s commandment.” Thus we find that Burghley was employing the portrait-painter, whom Ambassador Dale had recommended, as a spy. The mettlesome Earl of Oxford had obviously discovered what was up and had escaped in no little disgust.

From the facts that are known, it appears that he went by ship from Venice down the Adriatic coast, stopping for a while in Sicily, for at Palermo it is recorded that he issued a “challenge against all manner of persons whatsoever, and at all manner of weapons, as Tournaments, Barriers with horse and armour, to fight a combat with any whatsoever in defence of his Prince and Country. For which he was very highly commended, and yet no man durst be so hardy to encounter with him, so that all Italy over he is acknowledged the only Chevalier and Nobleman of England. This title they give unto him as worthily deserved.”(3)

It is likely that he went to Rome before sailing up the Mediterranean to Genoa, where he spent some time; he certainly went to Padua, Mantua, Florence, and Siena; then he returned to Venice. From here the banker, Clemente Paretti, through whom he was to receive funds, wrote Burghley that his Lordship had found himself, on coming from Genoa “somewhat altered by reason of the extreme heats,” adding that “his Lordship had hurt his knee in one of the Venetian galleys, but all is past without further harm.” In this quarter, too, Burghley must have asked for a report upon the behavior of his son-in-law, for the banker adds, “Of any other reports that your honour hath understood of my Lord, no credit is to be given unto.” There had been, he said, a quarrel among students and “a certain congregation of Saffi,” and “two noble gentlemen of Polonia” had been killed “all unawares.” Although for a time “the bruit ran Gentiluomini Inglesi,” there was nothing in it.

Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
“I overtook coming, from Italy,
In Germany, a great and famous Earl
Of England, the most goodly fashion’d man
I ever saw; from head to foot in form
Rare and most absolute; he had a face
Like one of the most ancient, honour’d Romans,
From whence his noblest family was deriv’d;
He was besides of spirit passing great,
Valiant, and learn’d, and liberal as the sun,
Spoke and writ sweetly, or of learned subjects,
Or of the discipline of public weals;
And ’twas the Earl of Oxford.”

—George Chapman

William Cecil, First Lord Burghley.
“There’s no art To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built An absolute trust.”

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 4, Lines 11-14

On September 24, Oxford wrote his father-in-law from Padua acknowledging letters which had acquainted him with news of the birth of a daughter on July 2nd. “Having looked for your Lordship’s letters a great while, at length when I grew to despair of them I received two packets.” From this it would seem that he supposed his itinerary to have been known to Burghley; but the cause of Burghley’s possible lack of information may be found in his ensuing statement that three packets of letters which he, Oxford, had sent to England during the summer had been returned to him “by reason of the plague being in the passages,” so that “none were suffered to pass.” He thanked Burghley “for the good news of my wife’s delivery.” [Complete letter.]

This is all that has survived of his comment upon that subject, for his letters to Anne have, unfortunately, been destroyed. But it was at about this time that he sent her a Greek Bible, with a poem in Latin inscribed upon the fly-leaf. [According to Nina Green, the Bible is no longer extant. The copy of the verses we have is not in Oxford’s hands.]

It is addressed: “To the illustrious Lady Anne de Vere, Countess of Oxford, while her noble husband, Edward Vere, Earl of Oxford, was occupied in foreign travel.” The Latin poem, which is for the most part a series of puns on Truth through the words Vera, Veritas, and Vere, has been translated by Ward as follows:

Words of truth are fitting to a Vere; lies are foreign to the truth, and only true things stand fast, all else is fluctuating and comes to an end. Therefore, since thou, a Vere, art wife and mother of a Vere daughter, and seeing that thou mayst with good hope look forward to being mother of an heir of the Veres, may thy mind always glow with love of the truth, and may thy true motto be Ever Lover of the Truth. And that thou mayst the better attain to this, pray to the Author of all Truth, that His Word may teach thee; that His Spirit may nourish thy inner life. So that, thus alleviating the absent longings of thy dear husband, thou, a Vere, mayst be called the true glory of thy husband.

(He meant the motto to be read, “E-ver Lo-ver of the Truth.” There is reason to believe that he had good cause to set before Anne an ideal of truthfulness.)

This is one of the earliest evidences we have of Lord Oxford’s tendency to play upon his name, but he continued to do so, both obviously and subtly, though unfailingly, through everything he wrote: upon his name, and truth, and other names and words. Not only was it the fashion, an intellectual exercise enjoyed by the alert-minded Elizabethans; he was helping to shape the language, to make it flexible, varied, fluent.

The meaning and the potentialities of a word may be illuminated through etymology. Turning a word about to exhibit its several meanings stimulated and delighted the Renaissance logicians. They were far from being jaded, as we are, with our semantics, self-conscious understatement, etc. With them—to quote a fascinating treatise on the subject—it was

a witty analysis commended and relished by Aristotle, practiced by Plato and the great dramatists of Greece, esteemed and used by Cicero, employed by mediaeval and Renaissance preachers in their sermons, regarded as a rhetorical ornament by the Elizabethans, but it was frequently despised as false and degenerate wit from the eighteenth century to the present day…. It must be acknowledged that when the word pun first came to be applied to verbal quibbling, about fifty years before Addison wrote, the excessive punning in political acrostics, anagrams, and facetious tales … had brought the practice into the disrepute and contempt which remain attached to it today. [But] “to an Elizabethan the play upon words was not merely an elegance of style and a display of wit; it was also a means of emphasis and a means of persuasion. An argument might be conducted from step to step—and in the pamphleteers it often is—by a series of puns. The genius of the language encouraged them.” (4)

John Donne played upon his name in his reverent Hymn to God, My God in My Sickness:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it was done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin through which I run
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

Each stanza ends with “done” used thus, the last one varied to:

And having done, Thou hast done,
I fear no more.

In his letter to Lord Burghley of September 24, Oxford wrote, “I thought to have seen Spain, but by Italy I guess the worst.” However, he was “desirous to see more of Germany, wherefore I shall desire your Lordship, with my Lord of Leicester, to procure me the next summer to continue my licence, at the end of which I mean undoubtedly to return.”

I have sent one of my servants into England [he continued] with some new disposition of my things there, wherefore I will not trouble your Lordship with the same. If this sickness had not happened unto me, which hath taken away the chiefest time of travel at this present, I should not have written for further leave, but to supply the which I doubt not Her Majesty will not deny me so small a favour.

By reason of the great charges of travel and sickness I have taken up of Master Baptiste Nigrone five hundred crowns, which I shall desire your Lordship to see them repaid, hoping by this time my money which is made by the sale of my land is all come in. Likewise I shall desire your Lordship that whereas I had one Luke Astlow that served—who is now become a lewd subject to Her Majesty and an evil member to his country—which had certain leases of me—I do think according to law he loseth them all to the Queen, since he is become one of the Romish Church … having used lewd speeches against the Queen’s Majesty’s supremacy, legitimation, government and particular life; and is here, as it were, a practiser upon our nation. Then this is my desire: that your Lordship-if it be so as I do take it-would procure those leases into my hands again, where, as I have understood by my Lord of Bedford, they have hardly dealt with my tenants. Thus thanking your Lordship for your good news of my wife’s delivery, I recommend myself unto your favour: and although I write for a few months more, so it may fall out I will shorten them myself. (5)

To this communication Burghley attached a notation: “Mark well this letter.” Whether he wished to emphasize the intention of his son-in-law to travel more extensively, thus remaining absent from his wife, or to keep in mind the terseness of the comment Oxford had made to him upon the birth of Elizabeth Vere, there is no knowing. (“Lewd speeches” against the Queen’s supremacy or “particular life” were no novelty to Burghley.) Lord Oxford had certainly evinced affection in the Latin poem inscribed to his wife when he spoke of the absent longings of thy dear husband,” even if, in the role of father, he had felt a little moralizing was in order. In the light of what afterward happened, it is impossible to exonerate Burghley—who invariably preserved all documents creditable to himself and his immediate family (6)—in the matter of the loss of so many that Oxford wrote in sincere good faith. Why only those showing the seamy side (many of them dictated to a secretary), concerning finances, sales of estates, doings of his tenants, debts, etc.– filed by Burghley and now to be found in the Hatfield MSS.—were kept, while others, to his friends, to, the Queen, and to his wife, are lost, one can only surmise, at the same time deeply deploring the fact; for what a mine of golden words and judicious thoughts was thus obliterated! However, it happens all too often that the judgment of the Philistine prevails at the expense of the poet of “purest faith.”

A letter recently unearthed which Leicester wrote Burghley in July 1577, doubtless bears upon a similar request. The final paragraph reads:

I am sorry my L. of Oxford should for any report think any more of going oversea. I can but wyshe and advyse him to take such course in all things as were best and most honourable for him & spetyally in his con-sideracion toward Her Ma[jesty] & his country…. In so hast this fowle Thursday
Yor L. assured friend.(7)

Leicester seems never to have put any obstacle in the way of his nephew’s, Philip Sidney’s, desire for travelling abroad or going to the wars, but it may of course be that in this case he had had instructions from Her Majesty, who seemed determined to keep Oxford at home.

Meanwhile his funds had dwindled, and the Earl was forced, as he had written Burghley, to borrow 500 crowns from the rich Paduan banker, Baptista, Nigrone. Money urgently requested from England was finally received through the Venetian banker, Pasquino Spinola. The names of these two combined are similar to that of Baptista Minola, who represents Burghley, and whose “crowns” are spoken of, in The Taming of the Shrew, one of the early plays.

A vivid impression of Edward de Vere, as he was at this time, has been preserved in Chapman’s The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois (III.1); the speech is by Clermont:

        I overtook, coming from Italy,
In Germany, a great and famous Earl
Of England; the most goodly fashion’d man
I ever saw: from head to foot in form
Rare and most absolute; he had a face
Like one of the most ancient honour’d Romans
From whence his noblest family was deriv’d;
He was besides of spirit passing great,
Valiant and learn’d, and liberal as the sun,
Spoke and writ sweetly, or of learned subjects,
Or of the discipline of public weals;
And ’twas the Earl of Oxford.

In Siena, at the beginning of the New Year, 1576, the traveller was still distressed about funds and wrote Lord Burghley in bitter protest with regard to the claims of his creditors. The chief of these was, of course, Burghley himself, in his official capacity of Master of Wards, which is to say the State. It may have been to this year, and not to 1570, that Burghley’s denial belongs:

Whoever saith that I did stay my Lord of Oxford’s money here so as he had no money in Italy by a space of six months they say so untruly.

There were undoubtedly a number of persons who knew the accusation to be justified.

My Lord [wrote Oxford], I am sorry to hear how hard my fortune is in England … but knowing how vain a thing it is to linger a necessary, mischief—to know the worst myself, and to I let your Lordship understand wherein I would use your honourable friendship—in short, I have thus determined. That, whereas I understand that the greatness of my debt and greediness of my creditors grows so dishonourable and troublesome to your Lordship, that that land of mine which is in Cornwall I have appointed to be sold … be gone through and withal. And to stop my creditors’ exclamations—or rather, defamations, I may call them—I shall desire … [and] authorize your Lordship to sell any portion of my land … where your Lordship shall think fittest, to disburden me of my debts to Her Majesty, my sister, or elsewhere I am exclaimed upon.

(In As You Like It [IV.1.20-22], Rosalind says:

A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s.)

Knowing that, in the opinion of his father-in-law, property was the sign and apanage of gentility, he continued:

In doing these things your Lordship shall greatly pleasure me, in not doing them you shall much hinder me; for although to part with land your Lordship hath advised the contrary, and that your Lordship for the good affection you bear me could not wish it otherwise, yet you see I have no other remedies, I have no help but of mine own, and mine is made to serve me and myself, not mine.

Always courteous, he seems to feel his patience wearing a little thin. Of course he knew perfectly well that Burghley had no interest in aiding him to remain in Europe. But he was determined not to be thwarted; besides, he always believed that money was but a means to an end. So far he still had confidence, however, in the good faith and affection of his father-in-law. Before concluding the letter, he states his position:

Whereupon, till all such incumbrances be passed over, and till I can better settle myself at home, I have determined to continue my travel. … For having made an end of all hope to help myself by Her Majesty’s service—considering that my youth is objected unto me, and for every step of mine a block is found to be laid in my way, I see it is but vain calcitare contra li busse; and the worst of things being known, they are the more easier to be provided for to bear and support them with patience…. That I am determined to hope for anything, I do not; but if anything do happen praeter spem [i.e., beyond my hopes], 1 think that before that time I must be as old as [so old that] my son, who shall enjoy them, must give the thanks; and I am to content myself according to the English proverb that it is my hap to starve while the grass doth grow.

(By the time Hamlet quoted this same proverb, some seven or eight years later [III.2.348-91, it had grown, as he said, “something musty.”)

With wishes for “a long and happy life, and better fortune to define your felicity in these your aged years [Burghley was forty-nine] than it hath pleased time to grant me in my youth …” he concludes, “Your Lordship’s to command during life” …

[Complete letter.]

Since the child recently born to the Countess of Oxford was a daughter, the reference may be to the son he hoped some day to have.

On his way back to Paris from Siena, Lord Oxford passed through Lyon, stopping for the Carnival, and was reported by the English Ambassador to have arrived on the last day of March, 1576. Dale was quoted by the Venetian Ambassador in a report to the Doge as having spoken of “the numerous courtesies” the Earl had received in Venice.

April 3 found Lord Oxford in Paris again, making preparations for returning home, fifteen months after he had set forth. In the best of spirits, exhilarated by the experiences he had had and the honors he had received, he paid his devoirs to the English and Venetian Ambassadors, and all was well.

Then the next day, as with a clap of thunder, the storm broke.

He had weathered storms before and was to bow his head more than once again, as time went on, to the lashing winds of adversity; but this catastrophic blow seems to have shocked him past recovery. Perhaps the reason lay in its peculiar quality, for the wound he sustained was jagged, not clean-cut; there was venom in it, as well as the pang from the impact which had taken him utterly unaware. The poisons arising from the situation with which, upon this April day in Paris, he found himself confronted, infected his blood and mind, precipitating a kind of intermittent fever that was to torment him for the remainder of his life. Again and again he would recreate this crisis in partially veiled fictitious instances, turning it this way and that, striving to resolve it in his own understanding and in his own conscience. But to the very end it rankled; the poison and the puzzlement plagued his great and sensitive intelligence. And he has left the record for us to make of it what we may.

What happened was that his steward, the manager of his estates, who had just arrived in Paris to meet him, informed him that the child born during his absence was not his. Burghley, the man said, had falsified the date of the child’s birth, which had taken place in September, not in July. (Was this why the announcement had been received so late, when he had grown almost “to despair of it”?) Perhaps the Countess’s father—so the agent insinuated—had encouraged his daughter in this act of unfaithfulness, in order to be assured of an heir to the de Vere estates who would also be his grandchild. He spoke darkly of these things.

Whether this slanderous steward was a secret agent of the Howards, the Catholic cousins bent upon separating the Earl from his Protestant wife, cannot be positively stated; but there is persuasive circumstantial evidence that he was in truth their Iago.

In any case, Lord Oxford left Paris in a fury of blind shock and outraged pride and crossed the Channel for England.


1. Ward; p. l01; cit. S.P.Foreign, 33-38. (Cal. 1575-7, p. 25.)

2. Op. Cit.; 33-45, p. 29

3. Ward; p. 112; quot. The Travels of Edward Webbe. Webbe was a Master Gunner, a senior officer in the Army, a man of standing and repute.

4. Sister M. Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language; pp. 164-5; quot. from Frank P. Wilson: Shakespeare and the Diction of Common Life.

5. Ward; pp. 107-8; cit. Hatfield MSS. (Cal. 11-114.)

6. Frederick Chamberlin makes this statement from his own findings in Elizabeth and Lycester; p. 174.

7. Op. Cit.; pp. 206-7.

8. Ward; pp. 100-111; cit. Hatfield MSS. (Cal. II.83.)

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