THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
What is the most memorablest and most glorious Sun which ever gave light or shine to Nobility? Our Veres, from the first hour of Caesar to this present day of King James (which is above a thousand seven hundred years ago) never let their feet slip from the path of nobility, never knew a true eclipse of glory, never found declination from virtue, never forsook their country being wounded, or their law-ful King distressed, never were attainted, never blemished, but in the purity of their first garments and with that excellent white and un-spotted innocency wherewith it pleased the first Majesty to invest them, they lived, governed, and died, leaving the memory thereof on their monuments, and in the people’s hearts; and the imitation to all the Princes of the World, that either would be accounted good men or would have good men to speak good things of their actions.
Gervase Markham: Honour in his Perfection, 1624
Conjecture, expectation, and surmise,
Of aids incertain should not he admitted.
(2 H. IV: I.3.23-4.)
Nay, it is ten times true; for truth is truth
To the end of reckoning.
(M. for M.: V.1.45-6.)
For truth is truth, though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true.
Letter from the Earl of Oxford to
Sir Robert Cecil, May 7, 1603.
Small time, but in that small most greatly liv’d
This Star of England. Fortune made his sword,
By which the world’s best garden he achiev’d,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Epilogue: King Henry the Fifth
ON AN AFTERNOON in September, during the fourth year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, a young nobleman came riding into London out of Essex at the head of a procession of seven-score horses caparisoned in black. So wretched were the country roads that the journey of some forty miles had required three days. The narrow streets of the city were ill-paved, tortuous, and dirty; there were no causeways, no posts: the people were obliged to draw back into doorways for the horsemen to pass. As the word went round that the twelve-year-old Earl of Oxford, hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England, was riding through the town, groups at the crossroads swelled, and heads appeared at upper windows for a sight of this new first earl of the realm, heir of the ancient and honorable family of de Vere which was second in eminence only to the Monarch. Grimy hands were waved and greetings rang out, some to be quickly muted at the signs of mourning, as the procession moved spiritedly along “through London and Chepe and Ludgate, and so to Temple Bar.”
It was a rude but hearty and sanguine populace, always eager for a show, responsive to pageantry, for which their young Queen had already manifested a fine aptitude and zest. They could not foresee that within a space of years they would be welcoming this young lord for his own gay and infectious charm, their laughter ringing out in happy recognition when he appeared in company with the Queen, at times bearing the Sword of State, either setting forth upon a royal progress or to celebrate amid wild scenes of patriotic fervor some event like the homecoming of Sir Francis Drake.
But still less could they have conceived, living as they did in an isolation such as only a fog of ignorance can produce, that with this dramatic arrival in London of young Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, from the great feudal castle of his forefathers, the effulgence of the Renaissance, of which as yet only a few bright rays emanating from Italy had struck highlights in England, would, through his association with their learned, picturesque, pleasure-loving sovereign, expand and glow, illuminating their country and their race with a radiance that, for centuries to come, would inspire the world. Strikingly enough, the young Earl was soon nicknamed “Phoebus” at court.
John de Vere, Sixteenth Earl of Oxford—”the good Earl”—had died on August 3, 1562, and been buried in the mausoleum of his ancestors at Earl’s Colne, the Priory of which had been founded in 1100 by Aubrey de Vere. The funeral, on August 31, had been ordered in true feudal style, with “three Heralds of Arms, Master Garter, Master Lancaster, Master Richmond, with a standard and a great banner of arms, and eight banner-rolls, crest, target, sword and coat of armour, and a hearse with velvet, and a dozen of scutcheons, and with many mourners in black; and a great moan made for him.” (1)
Castle Hedingham, famed among the ancient estates of England, was once “unsurpassed in all the land.” Here the de Veres had flourished for five hundred years “in great riches, honour, and power.” Queen Mathilda had died at Hedingham after having created the third Aubrey de Vere Earl of Oxford; his father, the second Aubrey, with his successors, having been made Lord Great Chamberlain of England, in 1106, by King Henry I. The first Aubrey, or Alberic, de Vere, was of Danish origin. For his support of William of Normandy in the Conquest he had been granted vast estates in the southern and eastern counties; one of these being Chenesiton, now Kensington. (2)
Situated upon its scarped plateau, this walled and moated Norman keep, with its bastions and parapets, its parks and pleasure-grounds, extensive forests and hunting preserves, courtyards, stables, barns, granges, chapel, tennis-court and butts, had been the home from birth of the young Lord Bolebec, now become the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. It was here that he had learned to ride with such ease and dash that Giles Fletcher was one day to write a Latin poem extolling his fearless and graceful horsemanship; here with his father he had taken part in the chase, in shooting, and hunting the stag; here he had become skilled in falconry.
At Hedingham, under the tutelage of Arthur Golding and Thomas Smith, the boy had progressed so rapidly in the studies of French, Latin, History, and “Cosmography” that he was entered as an impubes fellow-commoner at Queen’s College, Cambridge, at the age of nine, receiving his A.B. degree at St. John’s College at fourteen; he received his M.A. at Oxford two years afterwards. To his tutors must go some of the credit for the advanced scholarship of the precocious young Edward de Vere. Arthur Golding, half-brother of the second Lady Oxford and thus his uncle, was the translator, “in flowing and spirited fourteeners,” of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with which his pupil became so familiar in early youth that its poetry and classic beauty were woven into his consciousness among all the other indelible sensory impressions and vivid experiences of childhood.
In the array of heroes who peopled the boy’s imagination—not only because their exploits had been shared by his own forbears, but because their descendants were his friends and associates, their pride his pride, and their eminence part of his own—were the violent, hard-living, imperious Hotspurs, Nevilles, Cliffords, who had spent their lives amid “the tumult of predatory war or in the gloomy repose of garrisoned and moated castle,” like this home of his youth at Hedingham. It was a rich and colorful heritage, the tang of barbarism sharpening the sense of honor, responsibility, and prestige to the point where assurance became a nonchalant hauteur. England was theirs: their martial prowess had helped to create it; they had put the Tudors on the throne; they would defend their country and their sovereign to the death.
During the reign of the Catholic Mary and her consort Philip, King of Spain, the de Veres had lived inconspicuously, retired within their bastioned walls; for the sympathies of the Sixteenth Earl had been with the anti-papal position of Henry VIII. (He had named his son for the short-lived Edward VI.) Benedictine friars, who had been established nearby, continued, after the monasteries were dissolved, quietly to serve the Veres in religious offices, according to the ritual to which they had long been accustomed, and were often beholden to “the good Earl” for protection and support. But the loyalty of this family to Elizabeth was devoted and absolute. And she knew that well.
While the young Edward had been bred in the cognizance of his family’s martial exploits and his duty to the Monarch, he was at the same time, through family ties with the foremost poets and scholars of the day, imbued with an appreciation of literature and the arts. Besides having as his tutors the learned Arthur Golding and Sir Thomas Smith, who was a statesman, scholar, and author, he was related by the marriage of his father’s sisters, Frances and Anne Vere, to the poet Earl of Surrey and to Lord Sheffield, a man not only skilled in music but also author of “a book of sonnets according to the Italian fashion.” Moreover, the Sixteenth Earl maintained a company of players to provide diversion for the long winter evenings. To a precocious, sensitive, and highly impressionable boy with a natural aptitude for literature, a gift for music and an innate love of pageantry, these influences were stimulating, enhancing life and his vision of the world—both the ancient classical world and the modern tumultuous one.
The year before his father’s death, when the young Lord Bolebec was eleven, Queen Elizabeth paid a visit with her entourage to Castle Hedingham, remaining there for five days. Very likely it is from Elizabeth’s progresses to the country seats of her nobles that we have the expression, “to entertain royally,” for these gala visits taxed the resources of even her wealthiest subjects. Great banquets were served to scores of persons; for the daytime elaborate outdoor sports were provided, such as hawking and hunting—it was the fashion for ladies of the period to shoot at deer with the crossbow—and in the evening masques and stage-plays were arranged. Perhaps the Queen played on the virginals for the assembled company, her courtiers listening enthralled, or seemingly so. Or they danced the galliard, the lively canary, and the stately pavan with its slow cinque-pace movement. Elizabeth in after days said she had been “used to dance . . . after the Italian manner of dancing high.” She continued to do so for many years.
In this third year of her reign, the Queen was stately and fair, regal though young, vivacious and witty in spite of her great learning and the strains of her hazardous and unhappy girlhood. Her brilliance and charm, together with her authoritative presence and the magnificence of the occasion, must have been a wondrous thing in the observant eyes of the future poet who would dramatize so romantically the ways of princes and their courts. The conversation he listened to and perhaps participated in must have induced feverish excitement in a mind which was ever prone to meet intellectual and emotional stimulus with an intense response.
The Queen would have taken sharp note of this handsome, impetuous, idealistic youth. Indeed, from the time of his advent to her court in the following year, as a Royal Ward, throughout the remainder of their lives, her interest in him never abated. If her affection and her favor fluctuated from time to time as the years went by, so it did with them all, for she was a vain and capricious woman. Yet her respect for his high attributes of mind and character remained constant; and to this she made formal attestation.
Upon his entrance into London on the September afternoon, five months after his twelfth birthday, the turbulent emotions of the young Lord Oxford were confused. Deeply felt was his grief for his father, to whom he had been especially close; the ties to his mother were not strong, nor evidently had hers been to her husband, if one is to judge by the speed with which she remarried. Mingled with this pervasive sorrow, darkened by his first intimate experience of gruesome death and ornate mourning, was his sense of new dignity as bearer of the oldest, most august name in all England, of his prestige as first earl of the realm, Lord Great Chamberlain, the nobleman nearest in rank to the Queen’s Majesty. He would take part in the life at court, where he would see ambassadors from foreign lands and hear French, Italian, and Spanish spoken fluently, as well as the Latin of cultivated discourse to which he was already accustomed. It was well known that the Queen spoke and wrote in Greek also. “When I came to the throne,” she once told a French ambassador, “I knew six languages better than my own.” He had heard that she read Sophocles, besides the Romans—Cicero, Livy, Seneca—in which he himself was already proficient, and that she wrote sonnets as well as shrewd, learned speeches.
Poetry he loved with passion. He had already tried his hand at verses in Latin and English too, stimulated by the poems of his neighbor, George Gascoigne, who was bearing him company on his journey to the court, but they were stiff, imitative now of his uncle of Surrey, now of Lord Vaux, or written in the manner of George’s translations from the classics. George was only eight years his senior, a congenial companion.
It was said that the English court had become a center of learning second only to the courts of Italy and France. He meant to go one day to the Continent to fight for his country and bring his share of glory to the Vere name.
These dirty streets, these rough ignorant men and slovenly women, the grimy urchins darting under the horses’ very legs, whistling shrilly or squealing like pigs, causing the startled beasts to rear and toss their manes—what a mob, what a din of noise, but what gusto too! How they cheered and bobbed their heads in the low doorways of the taverns, or sighed and moaned in tribute to the appurtenances of mourning, some extending their cans of beer in a friendly toast, shouting and shoving, pledging him as a young prince come into his high estate. It was a new experience to him, potent and stirring.
The beat of hundreds of hooves clanked against the paving-stones, echoing far back along the narrow lanes. Off to the left was the Thames, with Whitehall around the bend. Tomorrow he would pay his duty to the Queen’s Majesty.
The horses pranced. Gascoigne had fallen back a little. The young Earl sat erect, his heart high. He was leaving sorrow behind and entering a brilliant new world.
The advent of Edward de Vere in London has a symbolic significance which is profoundly dramatic. It was one of those high clear moments in the world’s history when diverse forces seem to meet in an instantaneous harmony for the creation of something fresh and wondrous. This sensitive, impressionable young aristocrat in riding away from funeral pomp into the teeming life of the English capital, was leaving medievalism, with its preoccupation with death and gloom, for the vivid affirmation of life which was the essence of the Renaissance. Seldom is a great transition so strikingly epitomized in an individual as was the present one in the person of the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Henry VIII had considered himself a humanist, and indeed the first beginnings of the new mode had appeared sporadically during his reign; but it was in the reign of Elizabeth that the individual came into his own with the flowering of the spirit which was like the emergence of exultant life from a dark chrysalis.
In his study of the Italian Renaissance, John Addington Symonds eloquently describes the situation with regard to Europe, to which the great awakening had of course come long before:
Behind stretched centuries of mediaevalism, intellectually barren and inert. Of the future there were as yet but faint foreshadowings. Meanwhile the force of the nations who were destined to achieve the coming transformation was unexhausted; their physical and mental faculties were unimpaired. No ages of enervating luxury, of intellectual endeavour, of life artificially preserved or ingeniously prolonged, had sapped the fibre of the men who were about to inaugurate the new world. Severely nurtured, unused to delicate living, these giants of the Renaissance were like boys in their capacity for endurance, their inordinate appetite for enjoyment. No generations of hungry, sickly, effete, critical, disillusioned, trod them down…. Their fresh and unperverted senses rendered them keenly alive to what was beautiful and natural. They yearned for magnificence and instinctively comprehended splendour…. Everything seemed possible to their young energy; nor had a single pleasure palled upon the appetite. Born, as it were, at the moment when desires and faculties are evenly balanced, when the perceptions are not blunted nor the senses cloyed, opening their eyes for the first time on a world of wonder, these men of the Renaissance enjoyed what we may term the first transcendent springtime of the modern world. Nothing is more remarkable than the fullness of life that throbbed in them. Natures rich in all capacities and endowed with every kind of sensibility were frequent. Nor was there any limit to the play of personality in action. (3)
All this is true of Edward de Vere and of what he was bringing to the Elizabethan world. For he was the first man of the Renaissance in England. Others followed him, men “rich in all capacities and endowed with every kind of sensibility.” But he was the first, and he was the greatest of them all. It is to Elizabeth’s everlasting credit, and to her everlasting glory as well, that she recognized his genius and allowed nothing to interfere with its development.
There is a story recorded that midway [through] the young Earl’s journey a hard shower had overtaken his procession, giving him and his friend Gascoigne a drenching. He had resented this abrupt dampening, especially since the morning had shone with promise of fair weather, and he was unaccustomed to being crossed or flouted. But today, when he entered London, the skies had remained clear, and now the long twilight had set in with a limpid serenity which enhanced the visible world with its far-flung light, reaching farther than eye could see or even the mind of a poet could measure.
1. Machyn’s Diary; ed. Nichols. Camden Society, 1848.
2. B. M. Ward: The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford; cit. Dugdale’s Baronage (1675), vol. I, p. 188. All quotations from Ward, unless otherwise specified, are from this biography.
3. Renaissance in Italy; p. 8.