Archive for December, 2010

The Goddess of Justice

December 25th, 2010 No comments




“Astraea has left the earth.”

The phrase is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but Shakespeare gives it new meaning when he has the grieving Titus Andronicus rouse his kinsmen to join him in some madcap archery, shooting arrows into the emperor’s court, each one tipped with a supplication to the gods.

Titus, if you recall, had very good reason for his madness, whether feigned or real: the emperor’s step-sons had raped and horribly disfigured his daughter Lavinia, and he had seen the heads of two of his sons tumbled at his feet, knowing full well that they’d been executed on false charges and through a heartless deceit that had cost him his own hand.  “We may go pipe for justice,” he tells his gathered family, including his brother Marcus, grandson Lucius, and several assembled nephews.

As Jonathan Bate notes in his edition of the play, “Queen Elizabeth was frequently mythologized as Astraea.”

Had John de Vere lived to see Titus Andronicus played onstage, he might well have appreciated the old warrior’s fantastical, near-treasonous shenanigans with bow and arrow.  Back in Great Harry’s time, his brother-in-law, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, had cooled his heels in the Fleet prison after a shooting spree with “stone bows” through the streets of London.  While incarcerated, he wrote an indignant poem mocking the citizens of London and those who had detained him.

The “emperor” – as Henry VIII had styled himself – was not pleased.  Two years later, on Dec. 12, 1546, Surrey and his father, Thomas, 3rd duke of Norfolk, were arrested on specious charges, and soon condemned for treason.  Surrey was beheaded five weeks later, on January 19.  Only the death of Henry VIII had saved Norfolk from the same fate.  Earl John’s sister Frances was eight months pregnant when her husband was executed.  Since the records are silent as to their reactions, we can only imagine what John and Frances thought about the king’s “justice”.

Titus first played in London sometime between 1584 and 1589, according to Ben Jonson. On January 19, 1585 – exactly thirty-nine years after the beheading of Surrey – Richard Enewes, aged 92 “or thereabouts” admitted to the queen’s attorney general what he had done to Joan Jockey many long years ago:

…in the absence of the Earl, [John de Vere] the Lord Darcy and Lord Sheffield came to Earl’s Colne, and this examinant [Enewes himself] & two more with him brake open the door where the same Joan was and spoiled her, and this examinant’s fellow, John Smith, cut her nose, and thereupon after she was put away.

Joan Jockey was the village girl whom the 16th earl of Oxford had married at White Colne Church in the spring of 1546 or 47, after his first wife Dorothy had left him.  Curiously, her fate – an attack led by two men of the new nobility, both related by marriage to her husband – seems unnervingly close to what befell Shakespeare’s Lavinia.

It appears that Earl John’s reckless wedding was not well-received by Lord Darcy and Lord Sheffield, who were married to the earl’s sisters Elizabeth and Anne, respectively.  While their motivations remain obscure, it does seem that these two lords were responsible for organizing the vicious attack on Joan.  “Spoiled her” most likely indicates that she was raped, since Enewes speaks of the cutting as a separate action.

Would Astraea, goddess of Justice, now punish Richard Enewes and his surviving fellows, for their hideous crime?

Not on this day.  At issue was a lawsuit initiated by Hugh Key against Richard Masterson, over a manor bequeathed to Margery Golding by her husband, John de Vere, as Nina Green explains in her summary of the case.  Apparently, Hugh Key sought to prove that Edward de Vere’s birth was unlawful; unfortunately, his side of the story is missing from the records.  The testimony that we read in the surviving documents was offered “on the part & behalf of Richard Masterson gentleman, defendant against Hugh Key complainant.”  The job of these five witnesses was to give evidence in support of Masterson, whose claim to any interest in the disputed property required that Edward de Vere be the legal heir of Earl John.  To a man, each swore that to the best of their knowledge, the birth of Edward, now earl of Oxford, was lawful.

But if any one of them had knowledge to the contrary, would they have dared to offer it?  Although she doesn’t pose this question, Nina Green unintentionally implies as much when she observes:

Had the marriage been found to be illegitimate, it would have invalidated Oxford’s right to the earldom and therefore the Queen’s right to Oxford’s wardship, and the Queen would have had to repay to those now found to be the legitimate heirs all the profits she had taken under Oxford’s wardship from 1562 to 1585. It was perhaps for this reason that the Queen appointed her two highest-ranking legal officers, her Attorney-General, John Popham, and her Solicitor-General, Thomas Egerton, to conduct the examinations of the five witnesses. [emphasis added]

Certainly, on pecuniary grounds alone, it was not in the queen’s self-interest to allow anyone to find that Oxford was a bastard. Yet even without this selfish motivation, Elizabeth’s instincts would have been to protect Lord Burghley’s son-in-law, as Walter Ralegh might have cunningly reminded her.  On May 12, 1583, he’d written to Burghley, trumpeting his success in coaxing the queen to drop her present inclination to re-open the Howard-Arundel affair:

I answered that being assured her Majesty would never permit anything to be prosecuted to the Earl’s danger, if any such possibility were, and therefore it were to small purpose after so long absence, and so many disgraces, to call his honor, and name, again in question, whereby he might appear the less fit either for her favor or presence, in conclusion her Majesty confessed that she meant it only thereby to give the Earl warning… [emphasis added] (Monstrous Adversary, p. 290)

Consummate politician that he was, Ralegh used the queen’s devotion to Burghley, and concern for the old man’s health, as his trump card:

I delivered her your lordship’s letter and what I said farther, how honorable, and profitable it were for [her] Majesty to have regard to your Lordship[s] health and quiet…

Thanks to the aggravated testimony of Charles Arundel, back in December of 1580, we know that Oxford had been bitterly stung by the queen’s true opinion on his birth.  As Arundel remembers it, the earl had both complained and threatened revenge for her taunting comment: “That the Queen said he was a bastard, for which cause he would never love her, and leave her in the lurch one day. One mistress for love, another for the pound.”

Knowing that her Majesty knew something about his doubtful legitimacy, Edward de Vere must have been just a tad anxious to learn what questions her Attorney-General Popham and Solicitor-General Egerton would put to the five men, and how they would reply.  Would the goddess of Justice bring to light dark truths that even he had never suspected about his father’s irregular marriages?  Or would Elizabeth use the opportunity to once again “give the Earl warning”, reminding him of how very much – including “his honor, and name” –  he owed to her good will?

John de Vere’s firstborn son

December 18th, 2010 10 comments

For most of us who have any interest in the topic, that would be Edward, the only son ever recorded or claimed by the 16th earl of Oxford as his own.  I like to imagine that the boy’s arrival would have pleased his father.  Both the 13th and 14th earls of Oxford had failed to produce heirs, and his twelve years of marriage to Dorothy Neville had given him two daughters (one who survived, Katherine, and Faith, who died in infancy) but no son. Given the circumstances of predation and instability that all of England, but Earl John in particular, had endured since the passing of Great Harry in January of 1547, a male heir to his ancient family name must have given him great comfort.

And when did the happy father first welcome his baby boy and claim him as his own?  On the face of it, Alan H. Nelson’s discovery of a Privy Council document, dated 17 April, 1550, authorizing a gift “at the Christening of our very goode Lorde the Erle of Oxfordes Sonne“, leaves little room to doubt the traditionally accepted date of birth, first recorded in William Cecil’s retrospective table of important family dates as “1550 April 12, Edw. Co. Oxon Natus“.

As it happens, the 17th of April, 1550 was quite a busy day for the Privy Council, with the record of transactions beginning on page 430 of the online edition of the Register, and continuing through page 431 (Acts of the Privy Council of England, 1547-1550, Vol. 2, available at British History Online).  From the wording of the warrant, it appears that the christening had not yet occurred, and that the earl of Oxford’s son did not yet have a name; if he had one, surely someone would have thought to include it.  The name “Edward” had never been used for the de Vere earls; no doubt Earl John wished to honor his young monarch.  But he may also have wished to appease the king’s uncle, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of the Realm, who had so voraciously pursued a personal interest in the de Vere family’s estates.  By early April of 1550, Somerset seemed to be on the verge of regaining his former power; on 10 April, he had been reinstated to the Privy Council.

Most commentators on Edward de Vere’s birth have found the christening cup warrant to be sufficient proof that he was, indeed, the legitimate son of John de Vere and Margery Golding .  (See, for example, Robert Brazil on Oxford’s nativity, the first eleven pages of Christopher Paul’s article on Prince Tudor theory, Part II, and Nina Green’s opening account of The Fall of the House of Oxford) A small but eloquent minority, however, continue to suspect that this document is somehow compromised, and that the true story of Edward de Vere’s birth may have been willfully obscured.

As comforting as it might be to let well-enough alone, we actually have good reason to believe that things are not quite as they seem.  The first person to go on record with their doubts was a first-hand witness to Earl John’s affairs:  Edward’s half-sister Katherine Vere, Lady Windsor.   Perhaps out of respect for her father’s peace of mind, she said nothing until after his death in August 3, 1562.  But less than a year later, her husband filed a suit that seems to have touched the young earl of Oxford’s “legitimacy of the blood“, along with that of his sister, Mary.  The sole surviving document ( here in Latin, and here as translated in Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary) mentions “certain articles” but provides no clue as to the basis for Katherine’s attempt to nullify her father’s claim that Edward was, indeed, his true heir.

For that, we must turn to the disturbing testimony of five witnesses who were called on forty years after the events in question to recount all that they remembered of Earl John’s adulteries, reckless courtships, and his bigamous marriage to “Joan Jockey”, prior to his hasty agreement to wed Margery Golding.  Curiously, not one of these five men betrayed the least suspicion that the earl’s passionate affairs might have resulted in the birth of a bastard child.  This is mildly surprising.  In spite of all his mistresses and “pretended” marriages, Katherine, Faith, Edward and Mary were and remain John de Vere’s only children on record.  No spurious Edmund, it seems, ever dogged the heels of the earldom’s true Edgar.

And yet, Edward’s legitimacy problems began long before Katherine contested his rights in 1563, and were of such force that he remained vulnerable even after his father’s seemingly lawful marriage to Margery Golding in 1548.  From his first breath, Edward would have been surrounded by family who had lived through all the events described in 1585.  Some of his closest kin assuredly knew all that had happened to the village girl Joan – after all, his uncles Thomas Darcy and Edmund Sheffield were two of the five men who had “cut” and “spoiled” her.

Have you ever wondered why Sir John Popham’s twenty questions to the deponents of 1585, in a case that threatened the 17th earl of Oxford’s right to his name and lineal inheritance, did not include, “To the best of your knowledge, was there issue from any of these previous extra-marital liasions?”  Given that the queen herself had called Oxford a bastard, we might wonder if Popham had consulted her before drafting his questions.  If something truly damaging to the de Vere inheritance of Burghley’s granddaughters lurked in the testimony of these five men, would she have wanted it brought to light?  What if one of the men testified that Earl John had married Joan because she was pregnant with his child?

Among these darkest of memories, we find no easy explanation for Earl John’s touchingly erratic and increasingly frantic determination to marry someone, anyone.  What was his problem?  After Dorothy’s death in January, 1548, he was free at last to contract another true marriage.  Maybe what he needed, urgently, was a new wife who would silently adopt and legitimize a baby son born to the shamed and mutilated woman he’d already married at Whit Colne Church.

“How noble a shadow”

December 10th, 2010 3 comments

Lord Oxford’s promise to Thomas Bedingfield

It stands to reason that Edward de Vere began to write poems long before 1573, when he contributed a prefatory verse and letter to Thomas Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte.  His uncles were poets or translators of poets, and his tutors would have assigned exercises in translation from the great poets of Greece and Rome.  We know that he wrote “Comedies and Interludes”; while still in his early teens, he would have seen Interludes written specifically for “children” to play, printed and for sale in London bookstalls.  For all we know, he may have tried his hand at translating the comedies of Plautus, or ventured to compose original short pieces suitable for his fellow students to perform.  No such piece of juvenilia has yet been traced to his hand.  But if he was at all proud of his earliest work, we have good reason to expect that he would have been prouder still to see it in print.

In 1557, when Edward, Lord Bulbeck was still in his greenest years as a student, his martyred uncle Henry Howard’s poems were offered to the public, in the collection now known as Tottel’s Miscellany. This honorable precedent may help to explain Oxford’s later disregard for high-society’s collective frown against noblemen allowing their jewels of poesy to be hawked in Paul’s Churchyard.  From his first signed contribution to the London literary scene – his letter to his friend Bedingfield, justifying his publication of a private translation – the earl of Oxenford endorsed the power of print to establish a writer’s individual ‘Vertue’, and he did so in strikingly personal terms:

Again we see if our friends be dead, we cannot show or declare our affection more than by erecting them of tombs: Whereby when they be dead in deed, yet make we them live as it were again through their monument, but with me behold it happeneth far better, for in your life time I shall erect you such a monument, that as I say [in] your lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your vertuous life, shall hereafter remain when you are dead and gone.

Curiously, the only ‘monument’ that Oxford ever raised for his friend Bedingfield was through his patronage of a translation of another man’s philosophic reflections.   At first glance, one might think that the publication of Cardanus Comfort would erect a monument NOT to Bedingfield, but to the virtue of the Italian astrologer, physician and notorious gambler, Hieronymus Cardano.  But Oxford clearly meant to celebrate the blushing student Thomas, who professed to hope that the earl would “conceal mine imperfections.”  Impulsively, Oxford denied his friend’s self-effacing request:

For rather than so many of your country men should be deluded through my sinister means of your industry in studies (whereof you are bound in conscience to yield an accompt) I am content to make spoil and havoc of your request… What doth avail a mass of gold to be continually imprisoned in your bags, and never to be employed to your use?  I do not doubt even so you think of your studies and delightful Muses.  What do they avail, if you do not participate them to others?

Here we have the strongest possible witness to what Edward Oxenford might have done with his own studies in the “delightful Muses”.  No social stigma or fear of envious scorn, it seems, would have stayed his course to the printer’s shop, with finished manuscripts in hand, to “participate them to others” for the benefit of his countrymen.  Publication would have been both a duty to the Commonwealth and a comfort to the soul.  If his birth precluded an open participation in the literary marketplace, he would simply need to invent some other means to project his noble shadow.

What I find most intriguing about Oxford’s rousing encouragement to Bedingfield is the assumption that a translation can stand as a monument to the translator’s personal ‘Vertue’.  Part of my own apprenticeship in the poetic craft involved translating a handful of Spanish sonnets; I well remember the strange sensation of alien adoption that would overtake me by the time I’d reached the sestet.  Yet even while trying to remain faithful to the intent of the original (as best as I could make out what that might be) I couldn’t help but give the poet’s initial conceit and choice of vocabulary a spin through my own rhetorical devises.  The results often seemed more of an improvisation by Marie Merkel than an original sonnet by Juan Ramón Jiménez.

“Delightful”, I believe, adequately describes the labour of love involved in translating the ever-living spirit of a foreign poet into one’s own tongue.  One can’t help but apprehend a mingling of breathes in the process: where does Geronimo Cardano leave off and Thomas Bedingfield begin?  How much of Arthur Brooke’s too-young-to-know-true-love heart still beats in the fourteeners he pumped out for Bandello’s Romeus and Juliet?  Did the lascivious old goat Ovid leave an indelible stain on the Puritan soul of Arthur Golding?  In his closing lines to Bedingfield, Oxford blithely intermixes and confuses the life of the translator with the life of the person whose work had been translated:

And in your life time again I say, I shall give you that monument and remembrance of your life, whereby I may declare my good will though with your ill will as yet  I do bear you in your life.

In what way did Oxford see the translation of Cardanus Comfort as a “remembrance” of Bedingfield’s life?  Was he recalling the metamorphic sensation he himself experienced through giving new life to another writer’s words, so that the finished product seemed as much a portrait of his own psyche as it was of the original author?  Or was he simply anticipating future work by Bedingfield, that would record some essence of his friend’s journey through the here and now?  In either case, it seems to me that Oxford’s loving promise bequeathed a new valor to the Elizabethan concept of individuality.