John de Vere’s firstborn son
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.