Copyright 1954 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1954.
THE Seventeenth Earl of Oxford stands accused, among other things, of wasting his patrimony and even of deliberately laying waste his ancestral home, Castle Hedingham, from the motive of revenge! In The History and Topography of Essex (1836), Thomas Wright records that:
“Edward the seventeenth Earl succeeded his father: he wasted and nearly ruined his noble inheritance. For, having a very intimate acquaintance with Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, with cruel injustice condemned for his attachment to the Queen of Scots, he most earnestly interceded with Sir William Cecil, Lord Chancellor [sic.] Burghley, to save the life of his friend; and failing in his attempt he swore he would ruin his estate at Hedingham, because it was the jointure of his first wife, Anne, Lord Burghley’s daughter. According to this insane resolution, he not only forsook his lady’s bed, but sold and wasted the best part of his inheritance; he began to deface the Castle, pulled down the outhouses, destroyed all the pales of the three parks, wasted the standing timber, and pulled down the walls that enclosed the Castle”.
Wright, who has been followed by later historians, gives as his source: An Account of Castle Hedingham, by L. Majendie, 1796. This is what Mr. Majendie actually wrote:
“In 1562, upon the death of John de Vere, the 16th earl, it (the estate) passed to his son Edward, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who seems to have been much in favour of Queen Elizabeth. His first countess was Ann eldest daughter of the Lord High Treasurer Burleigh, by whom he had three daughters. It has been said, that this earl, being the great friend of Thomas Duke of Norfolk, interceded with the Treasurer to have his life, in danger from what was laid to his charge touching the Queen of Scots; but not succeeding, he grew so incensed with the Lord Treasurer as to determine to ruin his daughter; and accordingly, not only forsook her bed but sold and consumed that great inheritance descended to him from his ancestors.
As, I believe, there is no proof to substantiate this assertion, I shall not insist upon it, considering it rather as a traditional report: it seems indeed most natural to conclude, that the misfortunes which befell this earl originated rather from his boundless and well-known extravagance, than from a wish to gratify a resentment against the Lord Treasurer, to the detriment not only of the Countess, but of his three daughters and himself also. It is, however, very certain that many noble estates in this country were alienated by this earl; and from indisputable evidence now before me it appears, that the Lord Treasurer, in the year 1592 (several years after the death of his daughter, who died in 1588), secured to himself, by agreement with the earl, the honour and castle of Hedingham, with a view doubtless, of providing for his three daughters, more especially as about this time the earl married again.
But previous to this agreement, the earl committed great waste upon the castle hill, and, by warrant from him, most of the buildings, except the Keep were rased to the ground, The castle from this time ceased to be a place of residence; the parks which were three in number … were parted and let to several tenants in allotments.
The earl’s second countess was Elizabeth daughter of Thomas Trentham of Roucester, in the county of Stafford … By her he had a son Henry, who, after his father’s death, became the l8th earl of Oxford.”
Majendie is much more lenient towards the Seventeenth Earl than Wright, whose sole authority he is, but it would be interesting to know if the “warrant” still exists over the signature of Edward de Vere, and what date it bears. The Duke of Norfolk, who was Edward’s first cousin, was executed in 1572, and Lord and Lady Oxford, reconciled after a separation dating from 1576, were apparently living at Castle Hedingham, where their infant son was buried, in 1583.
What happened at Castle Hedingham—why, when, and by whose orders—is a problem I cannot claim to have solved entirely, but I have at least discovered an authoritative and, at the same time, lurid, contemporary account which puts the whole story in a very different light. For this I am indebted to an article by Charles Wisner Barrell, published in the (American) Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 3, Autumn 1948.
The article bears the suggestive title—in quotation marks—”In deed as in name—Vere nobilis for lie was W . . (?) . .”, but I may as well say at once that I can offer no clue as to what follows that tantalizing W. What is more to the point is the sub-title: “Shakespearean Master of the Revels Discusses the Oxford Mystery in Partly Burned Manuscript, Now Fully Transcribed”. The Master or the Revels concerned is Sir George Buck, and the manuscript (Tiberius X, f. 210) is in the Cotton Collection, now at the British Museum, but formerly at Ashburnham House, London. The damage has been attributed to a fire which broke out at Ashburnham House in 1731, when many manuscripts were destroyed.
The top left-hand corner and part of both side margins have disappeared, leaving irregular charred edges, but the page ends in a clean, almost straight line, about half an inch below the last line of writing, which has obviously been cut, not burnt. There is nothing on the other side.
Mr. Barrell, however, had not seen the original. He worked from a photograph, reproduced in a chapter on “Sir George Buck and the Revels Office”, contributed by Mark Eccles to a book called Thomas Lodge and Other Elizabethans, edited by C. J. Sisson, and published in 1933. The chief object of the reproduction was to provide a sample of Buck’s handwriting and Dr. Eccles only transcribed part of it. Mr. Barrell, with expert assistance from the New York Public Library, transcribed practically all that was legible. Further research has revealed a few minor errors, but I give his transcript below unaltered, except that, I have restored the original length of the lines, which were apt to over-flow the columns of the Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly. As Mr. Barrell explained, the dots represent missing words or letters and his own guesses and comments are enclosed in round brackets. The square brackets and asterisks are Buck’s.
. . .3
… fully begotten by himselfe in much …
… lases tyme that great & stately …
… the opulent & friendly patro(n) …
… and was very (struck out but restored) sodenly …
… consumed [ como sal en agua …
… say in the Refran] but not by the fault
… lord Harys (Howard’s) but rather by the sale of the
… dmaur. (word contracted) for certaynly the erl was a
… magnificent & a very (s.o.b.r.) learned & religious …
& so worthy in every way, as I have heard some grave & …
(d)iscreet & honorable persons [who knew the erl from his y(outh) …
& could very well judge of the hopefullness & …
tow(ard)lynes of young men] say & affirme he was much more like(ly) …
to raise & acquire a new erldome then to dis (s.o.) . . .
decay & loose an old erldome, yet this erldome was***
…in a word he was a …
in deed as in name—-Vere nobilis for he was W…
& truly noble, & most noble Vere (note pun). I spea(k) …
what I know, for he vouchsafed me his familiar ac(quaintance) …
(A variant interlineation after know reads: haveing had the honour of, etc.)
And whereas I and all that overthrew a Stately
From the figure 3 at the top of the page, Mr. Barrell inferred that Buck had written at least two other pages on Edward de Vere, but—”these were undoubtedly entirely consumed in the fire of 1731″. Moreover, the one page reproduced ended with an unfinished sentence—”proving the continuance of Buck’s apology on succeeding pages, now hopelessly lost”.
How, I wondered did he know that these other pages were lost? There was at least a chance that something more had survived—so I went to the British Museum to consult the original document.
I found that the figure 3 at the top of the page was not, as it happened, a page-number, but referred to Book 3 of Buck’s well-known, though nowadays little read, History of Richard III, but, by an odd coincidence, this turned out to be the last of a series of three pages of manuscript which, together, formed a digression on the Earls of Oxford, and it was a revised version of the first half of the preceding page—which had been crossed out. I will, therefore call it 2b. The other two pages (for convenience, 1 and 2a) comprise the two sides of a single folio, which is burnt at the sides and one top corner, more or less in the same pattern as 2b, but it is almost twice the length and the lower edge is also burnt, right across in a wide curve, so that it is impossible to tell how much is missing. The mutilated pages have been neatly mounted and bound, but there is not a single whole page in the book.
The dedication in the MS. is dated 1619: but in April 1622 Sir George Buck was declared insane—perhaps he did say that Oxford was William Shakespeare! A few months later he died, and the book was not published till 1648, when it was edited by Sir George’s great-nephew—of the same name without the title.
The printed book is full of errors and omissions, and what remains of Sir George’s praise of the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford is apparently conferred upon the Thirteenth Earl—a mistake which has been echoed down the centuries, so that Sir George’s own words, “a (wise) learned and religious man”, misapplied and unacknowledged, are to be found even in the present guide-book to Castle Hedingham. Still, I now had a crib, and since the printed book gives the only (superficially) coherent version of the story, it must be quoted.
We are in the time of Henry VII, and Perkin Warbeck, who called himself Richard Duke of York and claimed to be the son of Edward IV—one of the two little princes supposedly murdered in the Tower—has just been executed:
“In this Tragedy there was a Scene acted by John de Vere, Earle of Oxenford, which may be worthy of our observation for example sake, and makes not against the cause of Perkin.
This Earle of Oxenford much affected and devoted to King Henry the Seventh, was a great enemie to this Richard (Alias Perkin) and I thinke the onely enemie he had of the great Nobility, how this dislike grew I cannot say, whether out of ignorance, or incredulity, or out of malice, hating, King Edward, and all that had a near relation to that family, or else to apply himselfe to the honour of the King, but he and the Cardinall are said to be the chiefe urgers of Perkins dispatch and hee being high constable pronounced the sentence against the Young Earl of Warwicke, (which much distasted the Country) and nere to Heveningham Castle (that was his chiefest Seate) there lived in the woods an old Hermit (a very devoute and holy man as the fame of those times admit him) who seemed Much troubled to heare this newes, for the love he bare to the ancient and Noble family of Oxenford, of much anguish of Spirit saying, the Earle and his house would repent, and rue that guilty and bloody pursuite of the innocent Princes, for the event of which prophesy this hath bine observed.
Not long after the Earle was arrested for an offence so small, that no man (considering his merit and credit with the King) could have thought it worth the question, for which he was fined at thirty thousand pounds (in those days a kingly sum), a. after this he lived many years in great discontent: and died without issue, or any child lawfully begotten by him, and in much shorter time than his life time, that great and b. stately Earldome of Oxenford, with the Opulent and Princely patrimony, was utterly dissipated, and como fal in agua (as the Spaniards say in the refran) yet this Earle was a very wise, magnificent, learned, and religious man in the estimation of all that knew him, and one more like to raise, and acquire a new Earldome. c. But it thus fell and was wasted, the Castles and Manors dilapidated, the Chappell wherein this John de Vere and all his Ancestors lay intombed with their monuments quite defaced to the ground, their bones left under the open aire in the fields, and all this within lesse then threescore years after the death of the said Earle John“.
There are three marginal notes:
a. The Earle John died Anno. 4 H.8. 1512. Dominus de Arundell viva voce.
b. I may call it a stately Earldome, for the Earl of Oxenford, when he came to the possession of it, was offered by some 12000 pounds per annum, and leave to his occupation all Manors, Houses, Castles, Parks, Woods, Forests & all the Demesn lands thereto belonging, which might be more worth by yearly value then many Earldoms in this age.
c. The mathematicians that calculated the Nativitie of this Earle Edward, told the Earle his Father that the Earldome would fall in his “Son’s time”. (Italics mine.)
Now this is a hopeless muddle. The author, or rather the editor, does not seem to be able to make up his mind which earl he is talking about, and the issue is complicated by the fact that four successive earls bore the name of John. It was certainly John, the 13th Earl (d. 1512) who was arrested and fined by Henry VII, and from the body of the text, it would appear to be this Earl (John) who was “very wise, magnificent, learned and religious”, but, if so, it was he who dissipated his partimony “in much shorter time than his life time”, and he seems also to have left his own bones lying about in the fields, with those of his ancestors, “within threescore years after his death”. It is just conceivable that “in much shorter time than his life time” meant in less years after his death than his age when he died, but that is not the natural interpretation, and in Note c, it is Edward who is named! Let us return to the manuscript.
The first page, which has been pretty closely followed by the editor, ends with the lines:
… hath bin observed: (Viz.) that not . .
… arrested for a small offense …
and the second page (2a) begins:
…………..shorter time than his life tyme
But the top half of this page is crossed out, to be replaced by 2b, and by collating the two versions, it is possible to restore some of the missing words. The first eight lines thus become:
… (la)wfully begotten by himselfe (full stop & cap.) in much shorter tyme than his life tyme that great and stately
…the opulent and princely patrimonie
…wasted, and was very sodenly
…consumed [como sat an agua
…(span)iards say in the Refran] but not by the fault
… Lord Harys but rather by the sale of the
… dma(in?) for certainly the erl was a
After the words Lord Harys, Mr. Barrell inserted (Howard’s), but this is pure conjecture, for there is no missing or illegible word here. Lord Henry Howard, the brother of the Duke of Norfolk, has been the nigger in every Oxfordian woodpile ever since B. M. Ward suggested that the was the prototype of Iago, but it is difficult to see how he could have been held responsible for the spoliation or Castle Hedingham. “Lord Harry”, in this context, is almost certainly Edward’s son, the eighteenth Earl of Oxford, who succeeded to the title in 1604 and died in 1625. There is however no evidence that anyone ever blamed him for wasting his patrimony—he had no patrimony to waste till it was bought back for him by his mother about live years after his father’s death. It was—and still is—his father who was blamed—and there is plenty of room for the words of the father of in the partly consumed and badly charred left-hand margin before Lord Harys. Reference to the deleted part of 2a confirms this conjecture, for here, Sir George has interlined the words:
Sodenly it was
. . . iards say in a refran] Not by the fault of the
(one illegible word)
aforesaid most noble
Immediately beneath the last line (as part of the original draft) are the words “late Erle of Oxford”, and unless the addition was intended to be linked to this, it was left in mid-air. Now, in 1619, the late earl of Oxford was none other than Edward de Vere.
From 2a, also, we learn that it was the late Earl of Oxford himself who told Sir George about the offer which had been made to him when he came into the possession.
The special tribute to the Earl of Oxford, from “certainly the erle was” to “decay and lose an old erldome, yet” is an addition in 2b, but the next words “this erldome was (significantly followed here by asterisks) are interlined in 2a after the lengthy deletion and before the description of the demolition—already quoted from the printed book, where it has been copied almost verbatim.
In 2a, we are told that the sudden delapidation of the earldom was known (presumably at the time) “to verie many men yet living”, but this has been crossed out, and replaced by “within threescore years after the death of the said Erl Jon”. If the 13th Earl was intended, this would mean before 1572, but the question is: which Earl John?
The lines on “Vere nobilis” which, in any case, are crossed out in 2b, unfortunately have no place in 2a—and that brings us to the last line of 2b. This has been mistranscribed by Mr. Barrell, who had some difficulty in explaining what would have been an extraordinary statement—coming from Sir George Buck. It should read:
And whereas I call his erldome a Stately***
Now, an omission in the printed text, corresponding with the vanished portion at the end of p. 1, would account for the confusion between the various Earls of Oxford, and the simplest explanation would be that the MS. was burnt before it was edited for publication, but the editor may have been led astray by a repetition (inevitably also lost) of the words lawfully begotten by himselfe, which must, in relation to what follows refer either to Edward’s daughters, who, under the guardianship of Lord Burghley, acquired the estate in his lifetime, or to Edward himself, as the lawful son of John the Sixteenth Earl.
All we can say for certain is that the catastrophe occurred in Edward’s lifetime, but not through his own fault. However extravagant he may have been in his youth, and however foolish in parting with his estate to his daughters in his lifetime, he was, in this, a man more sinned against than sinning. Imagine what his feelings would have been if, returning one day to the family burial-ground at Earl’s Colne, he had seen the bones of his ancestors lying in the fields:
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.