Sir Edward Vere and His Mother, Anne Vavasor
Copyright 1966 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1966.
SIR EDWARD VERE, knighted by James I in 1607, was a distinguished soldier. In the late 1590’s he served in the Netherlands under Sir Francis Vere, and was Captain of a Company by 1600. Later, he was in command of the English army in the Netherlands while Sir Horace Vere (brother of Francis) was leading an expedition into the Rhyne country. But he was not only a soldier: in 1623 he was a Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire; and he was also a scholar, for he was the first to translate into English the Greek histories of Polybius. He died on active service in 1629, and three years later the famous John Hampden paid high tribute to him in a letter to his friend, John Eliot. Eliot had, it seems, sought his advice about his son’s future and Hampden replied:
“If Mr. Rich. Eliot will in the intermissions of action, add study to practice, and adorn that lively spirit with flowers of contemplation, he’ll raise our expectations of another Sr. Edw. Veere, that had this character; ‘all summer in the field, all winter in his study’; in whose fall fame makes this kingdom a great loser.”
All this is well known to historians, but though the “fighting Veres,” Sir Francis and Sir Horace, were first cousins of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, and Sir Edward is generally assumed to be their kinsman, his parentage remains a mystery—or did till the 1940’s, and still does to all but a few.
In 1941-42, Mr. Charles Wisner Barrell, at that time Secretary of the American Branch of the Shakespeare Fellowship, published a series of six articles in their News-Letter under the general heading “Shake-speare’s” Own Secret Drama. In the third installment (News-Letter, Vol. III, No. 3, April 1942), he told of his discovery of the documents in the Public Record Office (C.24.379, Town Depositions) relating to a suit brought by the heir of Sir Henry Lee against Anne Vavasor, Sir Henry’s mistress, who was alleged to have omitted certain items from the Inventory of his estate. Among these documents is a deposition, dated 24 August, 1612, beginning “Sir Edward Veere Knight” (my italics), and signed Edward Veere at the foot of each of its two pages. The deponent’s age is given as “32 years or thereabout” and he refers to “the said Anne”‘ as his mother; also to Thomas Vavasor (Anne’s son by Sir Henry Lee) as his brother.
Now, as Mr. Barrell pointed out, if Sir Edward Vere was thirty-two “or thereabout” in 1612, he must have been born in 1580, or thereabout, and this takes us back to the time of a Court scandal, when the Earl of Oxford was living apart from his wife, and Anne Vavasor was a maid of honour. On 23rd March l58l—or l580 by the old calendar, since New Year’s Day was then 24th March—Sir Francis Walsingham wrote to the Earl of Huntingdon:
“On Tuesday at night Anne Vavysor was brought to bed of a son in the maidens’ chamber. The E. of Oxford is avowed to be the father, who hath withdrawn himself with the intent, as it is thought, to pass the seas. The ports are laid for him and therefore if he have any such determination it is not likely that he will escape. The gentlewoman the selfsame night she was delivered was conveyed out of the house and the next day committed to the Tower.”
If the Earl had any intent to pass the seas, he failed, and soon afterwards he, too, was committed to the Tower, where he remained till 8th June. The date of Anne Vavasor’s release is unknown; and for the next fourteen years no more is heard of the child, but it can hardly be denied that Mr. Barrell succeeded in identifying him as Sir Edward Vere of later fame. To bridge the gap it is necessary to fill in the background of his childhood, that is to say, certain events in the lives of his parents which are relevant even if he was parted from both.
By Christmas 1581, Oxford was reconciled to his wife (more or less) and for the time being anyway his affair with Anne Vavasor was over; but not its consequences. In March 1582 there was an “affray” (it has since been described as a duel, but the word was affray) between the Earl of Oxford and Anne’s uncle, Thomas Knyvet, in which both were wounded, and this gave rise to a whole series of frays among their servants. As late as January 1585, Oxford received a challenge to a duel, which he seems to have ignored, from a Thomas Vavasor, perhaps a younger brother of Anne’s who was a child at the time of the scandal. Meanwhile, in 1583, a legitimate heir to the house of Oxford had been born, and died. In 1588 Anne, Countess of Oxford, died, leaving her husband three daughters, but no son; and it may have been at about this time that the son of Anne Vavasor was given his father’s name.
His mother, after a succession of illicit love affairs, had married a sea captain named John Finche, but left him about 1589 for the redoubtable Queen’s Champion, Sir Henry Lee, then nearly sixty years old and on the point of retiring. Nevertheless, with Sir Henry Lee she continued to live, steadfastly if not faithfully, to his dying day, twenty-one years later. Their son, Thomas Vavasor (later known as Thomas Freeman), was born in 1589 when his half-brother, Edward Vere, was eight years old, but no-one knows where Edward was during these turbulent years.
Young Edward Vere turns up, for the first time under that name, in his fifteenth year, at the University of Leyden, and it was two or three years later that he began his military career with the English forces in the Netherlands, under the command of his father’s cousin, Sir Francis. The documents discovered by Mr. Barrell, however, reveal him in his thirty-second year (aged thirty-one and five months, to be exact), as the acknowledged son of Anne Vavasor, and bear witness to his familiarity with the household of Sir Henry Lee, if indeed, he had not once been a member of it.
In his deposition he claims to know all the parties concerned in the suit—on both sides, and he “did know Sir Henry Lee … when he lived.” Sir Henry had once given him an embroidered cloak, an old one of his own; the hose went to his brother, Thomas Vavasor; and later the said Anne, at her own expense, and at the deponent’s request, had converted them into “furniture” for a bed—now part of the disputed property.
On going into the Low Countries, “which was about three years now past,………………….. wanting money to supply some occasions,” he asked the said Anne for £30, who “not being so well provided at that time spake to the said Sir Henry Lee for the same”; and Sir Henry had sent him £30 by a servant, which he “refused to take as a gift from the said Sir Henry Lee,” but “being then at Sir Henry Lee’s house,” he offered to repay him in Holland cloth or Rhenish wine from the Low Countries—”whereto the said Sir Henry Lee answered saying as it pleases you Mr. Veere.” Afterwards, on going into the Low Countries, he sent it, and he had “heard his mother the said Anne say” that it was “accounted in the said Inventory”; but both at that time, and “at other times,” he had also sent Holland cloth to the said Anne “for her own use.”
He was present after Sir Henry’s death at the division of his plate, and remembered very well that there was one “charger” (a large flat dish) which his brother Thomas (Vavasor—erased) claimed, as having been given to him at his christening by the said Sir Henry. Whereupon it was delivered to him.
Apart from this allusion to Thomas’s christening-present there are no childhood reminiscences, and Edward does not claim to remember the occasion of Thomas’s christening, or even to have known beforehand that the charger was his, but it is clear that as a young man he was almost “one of the family.” I say almost because of his refusal to accept the sum of thirty pounds as a gift from Sir Henry. It was, of course, a question of pride, and one can hear the defensive note of pride in Sir Henry’s response: “As it please you Master Veere.” The relationship was not an easy one.
Mr. Barrell argued persuasively that some of “Shakespeare’s” (Oxfords) Sonnets were addressed to his illegitimate son, Edward Vere, and in this he has been followed by Professor Louis P. Benezet (The Six Loves of Shake-speare, 1958) and Miss Eleanor Brewster (Oxford Courtier to the Queen, 1964). Each duly acknowledges the debt in a footnote, but neither gives the essential documentary evidence on which Mr. Barrell based his conclusions. The main facts of the case, as given here, are derived from his articles, but I have recently examined the documents myself and have added some domestic details not given by him.
Note. In the above quotations spelling has been modernized, and abbreviated words written in full.