What Happened at Hedingham and Earls Colne?
Copyright 1970 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Summer 1970.
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down rased,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage . . .
THE article on Earls Colne and Castle Hedingham, by H. W. Patience, published in our Review (No. 20, Autumn 1968) and the Correspondence on The Mystery of Lord Oxford’s Grave (Nos. 19, 20 and 21) raise some interesting questions. Oddly enough, the Correspondence, which started from the much discussed mystery concerning the final resting-place of Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford, brought forth the fact that authorities differ about where his father was buried. Their contradictory, and even self-contradictory, statements are reflected in the writings of Oxfordians, most of whom believe that he was buried at Castle Hedingham, though according to the late Canon G. H. Rendall, he and his wife, Margaret Golding were both buried at Earls Colne. [Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Edward de Vere, p. 10, p. 19.] I had noted this discrepancy before, but unfortunately Canon Rendall does not give his source, so I left it at that. Spurred on by Mr. Patience’s Letters, however, I set out to find the source, if I could. It did not take long, for to my astonishment I found that the two standard historians of Essex, Morant (1768) and Thomas Wright (1836) both record his burial in both places—on different pages of course! So you can take your choice, with equal authority for and against, either way; but the entry in the Parish Register at Castle Hedingham ought to be conclusive evidence, provided we can be sure that it was made at the right time. I have not seen the Parish Register, but understand that the original volumes go back to the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I, and a forgery would be almost impossible, unless there just happened to be a convenient space for an insertion. Does it matter where he was buried? Perhaps not, but in the light of after events it may. I am going to suggest, rashly perhaps, but as a pointer for further research, that he was in fact buried, first at Earls Colne Priory, and later—but not more than thirty years later—reinterred at Castle Hedingham. The second proposition would, as it happens, follow almost inevitably from the first.
That Earls Colne Priory has vanished and with it most of the tombs of the Earls of Oxford, and that the Norman Keep is all that is left of Hedingham Castle is not in the least surprising; but such evidence as we have suggests that the first stage in their ruination was sudden, perhaps violent, and almost simultaneous. It did not happen in the reign of King John, nor during the Wars of the Roses, but in the reign of Elizabeth I, and the surprising thing is that we know so little of the circumstances. Edward de Vere has, of course, been accused by historians of wasting his patrimony, defacing his own castle, destroying the pales of the parks and pulling down some of the buildings, not to mention the 12 foot thick Curtain Wall—and all this as an act of revenge against his father-in-law, Lord Burghley, to whom he alienated at the estate at the end of 1591—in trust for his three daughters. His biographer, B. M. Ward, could find no contemporary evidence for this story and quite rightly repudiated it, but wrongly insisted that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. [The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, p. 306.]
That the story was exaggerated, however, is sufficiently proved by a pictorial plan of the castle, made for Burghley in 1592. [Reproduced in An Elizabethan Puritan (Arthur Golding), by Louis Thorn Golding, facing p. 32. I understand the original is at Hedingham, Castle.] This shows quite a number of buildings still standing and there are flags flying on the roof of the Hall, indicating perhaps that Lord Burghley was in residence. Against one of the buildings is written the comment: “The great brick Tower the lead timber iron and glass taken away”, and that is the only damage specified, but two other buildings, the Great Tower (recognizably the Keep) and the Brick Turret are significantly marked “undefaced”, as if that were the exception to the rule. The position only of certain other named buildings, including the Chapel, is represented by dotted lines and the natural inference is that these areas were literally flat, being either the ruins of old buildings or sites for new ones, or both.
As for the Priory at Earls Colne, it is well known that the final acts of vandalism and desecration were committed in the eighteenth century by the then owner, John Wale, who rebuilt the mansion house of the de Veres within the precinct, using the ancient monuments of the Earls of Oxford for chimney-pieces, and made a ha-ha on the site of the Priory Church, in the artificial banks of which many human bones were once exposed to view. But this was not the first time that the bones of the Earls were disturbed.
The only contemporary account, so far as I am aware, of the earlier disaster that befell both Castle Hedingham and Earls Colne is to be found in a most unexpected place, the original manuscript of Sir George Buc’s History of Richard III, but its only connection with the subject of the book is that it arises from a prophesy, made shortly after Richard’s death, by an old hermit who lived in the woods near “Heveningham”, the “chief seat” of the Earl of Oxford—this would be John, the 13th Earl, who fought against Richard at Bosworth Field, and so helped to place the Earl of Richmond on the throne as Henry VII. The MS., now at the British Museum, is a rough draft in the Elizabethan Secretary Hand, full of deletions and corrections and badly damaged by fire; and as some of our readers may remember, I gave a detailed account in this journal, ten years ago, of my attempt to reconstruct the text of the relevant two and a half pages. [Cotion Tiberious Ex. f. 209 (both sides) and f. 210. See Oxford Exonerated S.A.R. No. 4, Autumn 1960.] My chief concern then was to get as much of the evidence as possible into print for the first time, but it is in print now and has been for ten years, so I will give only the gist of my findings:
The “late Earl of Oxford” (identifiable on the evidence of dates as Edward de Vere) told Sir George Buc that, after he came into the possession of his “Earldom”, certain rich and wise men offered him a huge annual rent for the land, leaving to his own use the Castles and Manor Houses of the ancient Earls, with the parks, woods, forests and waste lands “adjacent and appertaining” to them. “And this surplussage”, Buc comments, “might be of more worth . . . than sundry Earldoms in this age. And (yet) all this Earldom was wasted and dilapidated and spoiled, the Castles and Manor Houses pulled down and the Chapel wherein this Earl John de Vere was entombed and where all the sepulchres and noble monuments of his ancestors were . . . All these were demolished and razed to the ground, and the bones of the ancient Earls were left under the open air and in the fields. And all this is known to very many men yet living”.—Buc was writing about 1619.
A hiatus in the MS. and the succession of Earls named John at this time, leave the identity of “this Earl John” uncertain. Probably it referred to the 13th Earl, who died in 1512, but the 14th, who died in 1526, is the last of the line known to have been buried at Earls Colne, and there can be no doubt whatever about the identity of the Chapel where all his ancestors were buried. Yet this holocaust at Earls Colne seems to have been completely forgotten, though it must have deeply shocked the villagers and the whole countryside at the time, not to mention the living Earl of Oxford. No wonder the place was said to be haunted—by Cromwell’s time, if not before.
Did Buc exaggerate? A little perhaps. The corrections do in fact include some slight modifications, but one cannot be sure that these were the author’s and it would be tedious to give all the alternatives, so I decided to keep to the first draft. Certainly Hedingham Castle, itself, was not entirely pulled down, but the picture Buc paints is one of widespread devastation. One begins to understand what was meant by the accusation that Oxford wasted his patrimony; but Buc absolves the 17th Earl from blame. For him, the whole episode was, in some sense, an act of divine retribution for the sins of the 13th Earl who, from Buc’s point of view, fought on the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses and the subsequent rebellions against Henry VII. But it was obviously not an “act of God” in the same sense as an earthquake, for instance; neither can it have been entirely due to human negligence, or human greed. Yet the motives of the necessary human agents are left unexplained. Who were they? Buc names no-one, but suggests, by juxtaposition if nothing else, that those rich and wise tenants had something to do with it—assuming that the young Earl accepted their offer, which he does not make quite clear. When did it happen? We cannot answer that question precisely, but we can narrow it down to a period of twenty years, between 1572, when Edward de Vere was granted possession of his estate at Castle Hedingham—though not apparently Earls Colne Priory—and 1592, when the plan of the Castle was made for Lord Burghley. Another question arising from the evidence before us is: Were the remains of Edward’s father, John the 16th Earl, who died in 1562, left lying in the field with the rest? If so, his reburial in the Parish Church at Castle Hedingham would, as I have said, follow almost inevitably. For the moment it is only a question, but an important one in relation to Hamlet, and it may still be possible to discover the answer, at Hedingham, Earls Colne, or elsewhere.