Posts Tagged ‘John de Vere’

“I am that I am” says William Shakespeare…

November 19th, 2011 5 comments

Then Moses said vnto god, Behold, when I shall come vnto the children of Israel, and shall say vnto them, the god of your fathers hath sent me vnto you: if they say vnto me, What is his name? what shall I say vnto them?

And God answered Moses, I Am That I Am.  Also he said, thus shalt thou say vnto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me vnto you.

Exodus 3: 13-14, Geneva Bible 1599

Many thanks to Sarah B. for her useful comment on my last post, “He that will forget God”:

“Your odd leap from the Richard conversation to the “I am who I am” thing seems illogical. The phrase doesn’t figure anywhere in the conversation.”

You’re right, Sarah, I did take quite a leap, depending more on innuendo and intuition than straight exposition and fact.  But I do appreciate your expectation of logic, and will try to add a few stepping stones to make it easier to follow what I only suggested a few weeks ago:

1). Elizabeth characterized the person responsible for portraying her as Richard the Second as “He that will forget God.”

2). A person who uses God’s own phrase, “I am that I am” without remembering that he or she is what they are by the grace of God has, quite literally, forgotten God.

3).  William Shakespeare, who was not brought to trial, or even brought in for questioning regarding his bit part in the Essex Rebellion, forgot to mention God when he said “I am that I am” in Sonnet 121.  Edward de Vere also forgot to mention God when he proclaimed himself “I am that I am” in a personal letter admonishing his father-in-law.

4). Therefore, William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere – two praised dramatists with well-documented ties to the London theater world –  both qualify for consideration as the subject of Lambarde and Elizabeth’s conversation, that unnamed he of the “wicked imagination”, aka “he that will forget God.”

Edward de Vere seems to hold the better claim, being a creature “made” by Elizabeth, who granted him a thousand pounds a year when he was bankrupt, for naught but keeping state in respectable style, so as to uphold the outward awe of England’s nobility.  And yet, if the earl of Oxford had anything at all to do with William Shakespeare and his poetry, by way of collaboration or subversion, for some reason, he neglected to claim responsibility for his contributions.  Perhaps like “Captain Tucca” of Satiromastix, he was content to let others take “the guilt of conscience” for his dramatic devices.

Of course, Elizabeth may have had many other manifestations of forgetting God in mind, when voicing her ire towards the gentleman with the “wicked imagination”.  She may have found evidence of a proud, humanist spirit in Shakespeare’s plays.  She may have recognized the perplexing impossibility of assessing Shakespeare’s true faith from reading his tragedies, histories and comedies.  She may have looked in vain for humble praise of God or adoration of Jesus Christ in Shakespeare’s published poems.

Did Elizabeth know of Shakespeare’s use of the phrase, “I am that I am”?  Perhaps, perhaps not, since his “sugared sonnets” may have been circulating among a circle of friends that didn’t include her Majesty.  And yet, that circle quite likely included Richard Barnfield, a friend of Meres, and intimate of high-society figures such as Penelope Rich (sister of Essex) and William Stanley, earl of Derby.  Barnfield’s saucy and salacious poem of 1596, brashly entitled Cynthia and dedicated to the queen, certainly caused more than a passing frown of consternation.  It isn’t hard to imagine that someone who had Shakespeare’s private sonnets in hand, sonnets that were being eagerly read among a privileged coterie, would have enjoyed sharing such charming booty with the ever-romantic Virgin Queen.

As for Edward de Vere’s “I am that I am” assertion, Elizabeth’s “spirit”, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, may have felt it his duty to let her majesty know of the incredibly arrogant letter he’d received from her proud subject.  As a devout man with Puritan inclinations, Lord Burghley would have immediately recognized the theological implications of de Vere’s usurping God’s sacred name for his own, tawdry ends.   Chances are he would have felt compelled to issue a stiff corrective to such presumption.

This, I believe, is what actually happened.  Shortly after Burghley received this letter, a legal complaint was allowed to proceed in which Edward de Vere’s legitimacy came under intense scrutiny.  Incredibly embarrassing details about John de Vere’s erratic love life were made public, including a lurid tale about the rape and mutilation of the 16th earl of Oxford’s second, bigamous wife, Joan Jockey.  Both Elizabeth and Burghley had the power to squash these proceedings, but did not.  Could it be that they both agreed that Edward de Vere needed a bit more humbling?  (For more on the connections between Oxford’s letters to his father-in-law Burghley, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121, see Robert Detobel’s short essay, “I am that I am”).

In any case, Elizabeth didn’t need to see this letter to know Edward de Vere as “He that will forget God”.   Twenty years before her conversation with Lambarde, she’d read the testimony of de Vere’s cousin Henry Howard, and his former friend, Charles Arundel.  To back up the accuracy of what they say that Oxford said, these men called as witness Lord Windsor, Mr. Russell and Walter Ralegh.  Elizabeth could and probably did ask each of these men if Oxford really did indulge in such talk:

…his most horrible and detestable blasphemy in denial of the divinity of Christ, our Saviour, terming the Trinity as a fable, that Joesph was a wittold, and the Blessed Virgin a whore.  (see Monstrous Adversary, Alan H. Nelson, p. 210)

BTW, I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who has read Jonathan Bate’s discussion of Elizabeth’s conversation with Lambarde (Soul of the Age, 2009), and can either comment on his challenge to the authenticity of the record, or fill in some of the gaps from those pages unavailable on Google books!

Much Virtue in “If”

April 4th, 2011 20 comments

Now available in paperback from Grove Press, with a new forward by James Norwood, Professor of Humanities, University of Minnesota:

Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom: the True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth

by Charles Beauclerk

Grove Press, 2011

Now is this golden crown like a deep well

That owes two buckets, filling one another

The emptier ever dancing in the air

the other down, unseen, and full of water.

What makes a history of Shakespeare “true”?  Charles Beauclerk’s story begins propitiously – he has the right man, Edward de Vere, and he knows that Edward de Vere drew from a deep, unfathomable well:

…the process of making images is largely unconscious, fashioned from the invisible components of the individual imagination, rather like an alphabet arising out of the unconscious of a new race.  … In this hinterland of the soul, where images hatch, we are very close to the heartbeat of motivation, of sensing why an author writes as he does.  (SLK, p. 156)

Remarkably, the author also knows his own part – and the part that every lover of Shakespeare’s poetry performs –  when we set out to transcribe and interpret these heartbeats:

We respond to him on a preconscious level – between the lines – almost as if we were co-creators, for the dynamic field in which his unconscious mind intersects with ours is intensely alive, making his work strongly akin to music.   (SLK p. 164)

This unconscious intersection with our will, powered by Shakespeare’s irresistibly mellifluous lines, is a form of magic.  We can’t help wanting to take his words in, to have them “by heart”, to release them on our own breath.  We are enchanted, and in this state, Shakespeare’s story – the one we read between the lines of his kings and queens and all their devastating follies – touches a part of us that makes us love him and want to protect him.

The facts of Edward de Vere’s troubled biography, placed alongside this poetry, vibrate through every synapse of the work, charging the lines, images and words with sparks of meaning.  By the light of these shooting stars, like the bewitching glow of Ariel’s “flamed amazement” on the topmast of our brave vessel, we read and listen for his heartbeat, instead of our own.

But are these new signals yielding a “true” history of Shakespeare?  Such a prodigious intelligence will not give up its mysteries to weekend stargazers.  Like Dante, Shakespeare dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher.  Does Charles Beauclerk have the key to Shakespeare’s dramatic alphabet?  I think he has one vital part of it.  Towards the end of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, he tells us that “an essential quality of the plays themselves” is that “they are the life, not only of the dramatist, but of the times in which he lived.  Their fabulousness is their reality.” (SLK p. 325)  In other words – and I hope I do justice to what Charles intended here – Shakespeare’s plays and poems are fables.  They may be populated with what seem to be real people from de Vere’s life, but their “reality” has been transformed into something necessary to the poet.

The truth of fables is not a literal truth, that we can prove or disprove with historical documents, but a psychic one, transferred from the poet to the heart and mind of the true listener.  The fabulous subconscious story that Charles Beauclerk hears is in some ways the same story that Edward de Vere seems to be whispering in my ear, each time I go back and read The Collected Works of William Shakespeare cover to cover.  This tragic tale has five essential components:

1. Shakespeare’s works betray a very personal, hyper-sensitivity to the stain of bastardy.

2. He thought of himself as a Prince, but along the way he lost his kingdom.

3. His poetic gift compelled him to transform the dross and agony of life into a surrogate kingdom of the mind.

4. His dramatic portrayals of Elizabeth suggest a privileged but volatile relationship.

5. “Shakespeare’s desire for vengeance was real and one of the great motivating forces of the canon.” (SLK, p. 274)

Even when one disagrees intensely – as I most emphatically do – with some of Charles Beauclerk’s basic assumptions and theories, the great wonder of his “true history” is how much of what he draws up from below the mottled surface scum of the well remains pertinent.  One bucket – for supporting facts in the historical record, cautiously interpreted – is often the emptier, and dances in the air, but the other sinks deep, and fills with water.  Beauclerk is extraordinarily attuned to Edward de Vere’s personal transformations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with a keen eye for permutations of the Actaeon myth.  Here are a few examples of what you will miss, if in your aversion to Prince Tudor theory or insistence upon historiographical rigor you neglect to read Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, as I almost did:

In another extraordinary resurfacing of the Actaeon myth, Tamora is compared to Diana, the moon goddess.  When Lavinia and her husband, Bassianus, come upon Tamora in the woods, the empress tells Bassianus that had she Diana’s power she would mete out the same punishment to him that Actaeon suffered at the hands of the goddess.  In the end, it is Lavinia who is fated to drink from this bitter cup, for like Actaeon transformed into a stag she loses the power of speech, and her delicate hands are turned into hooflike stumps.” (p. 273)

Titus is a play that I know quite well, but this searing vision of Lavinia as a silent stag was a revelation for me.   Venturing into more heretical territory, Beauclerk offers a terrifying insight into the personal relevance of Shakespeare’s two published poems, Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece:

Venus, who at the end of the previous poem flew off to Paphos, where she meant to “immure herself and not be seen,” is transformed into the chaste and cloistered Lucrece; and the boar-pierced Adonis becomes “lust-breathed” Tarquin, who in destroying the chastity of “the silver moon,” as Shakespeare describes Lucrece – i.e., in deflowering the goddess – brings down the monarchy.  Thus Adonis becomes both the flower and the serpent under it.  The flower that the goddess presses to her bosom is beautiful but deadly, rather like the asp that Cleopatra nurses at her breast.  Thus the Shakespearean hero-archetype embodies within himself both the redeemer (Adonis) and the destroyer (Tarquin)… (p. 176)

“Thus Adonis becomes both the flower and the serpent”: I had suspected as much, but have never had the courage to raise this topic for discussion in the usual Oxfordian chat-rooms and other venues.  In this, and in his recognition of Oxford’s vengeful nature, (quoted above), we seem to have witnessed the same disturbing basilisk, daring us to look in his eyes.  Beauclerk doesn’t flinch; his commentary on Falstaff is chilling in its penetrating accuracy:

Ultimately, Falstaff is imprisoned in his own kingdom of language, where wit takes precedence over feeling.  When he says that his womb undoes him, it is his womb of wit – his invention – rather than his great belly.  Though wondrously humorous, the fat knight seems to have almost no feeling toward others; he is too wrapped up in the great adventure on which his great wit is willy-nilly leading him.

Now for our differences.  They are many, but only one really matters:  Who were Edward de Vere’s true parents? Charles Beauclerk’s history begins with the tentative proposition that Oxford was the child of Princess Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour.  Note the word “tentative”, which I’ll get to in a moment.   My position is that Edward was John de Vere’s firstborn son, but not securely legitimate, as the historical records show.  The following brief essays, along with the file on the 1585 Depositions, outline the historical and literary basis for my alternative theory, that Joan Jockey may have been Edward’s true mother: John de Vere’s firstborn son; The Goddess of Justice; “Why dost not speak to me?”; “You bee a sort of knaves”, sayd Skelton; 1585 Depositions Concerning Oxford’s Legitimacy

When Beauclerk chose to build his story around the second Prince Tudor theory, surely he knew he was taking on a highly controversial and divisive premise.  Disarmingly, with strategically placed deployments of “if” and “seems” and “whether… or not”, he allows for our hesitations and doubts: when all is said and done, perhaps we will not find that he has proven his hypothesis: 

p. 41 “Whether she bore a child by Seymour or not…

p. 92:  “Thus, if Oxford was Elizabeth’s son…”

p. 101: “….like Hamlet he was, it seems, the son of the queen.”

p. 158: “And if his mother was the Virgin Queen…”

p. 224: “If Shakespeare was indeed the son of the Virgin Queen…”

p. 296: “Whether he was the queen’s son or not…”

p. 322: “… and Shakespeare, it seems, was the fruit of that trespass.”

p. 334: “…in Oxford’s case, if, as the evidence suggests, his mother was the most powerful woman…”

As Touchstone wittily puts it, “Your If is the only peace-maker; much virtue in If!”

Here’s an “if” in return: “If Edward de Vere knew for certain that he wasn’t John de Vere’s son, but instead, was the bastard son of Elizabeth Tudor and Thomas Seymour, how would he feel about the exchange?”  On page 86, Beauclerk writes:

Whatever comforts he could press to his bosom Edward de Vere knew for certain that there were those about him who saw through his “Oxford” mask; nor could he draw solace from the fact that the blood of the Tudors flowed in his veins, for his royal birth was far from being a political reality. [emphasis added]

But beginning on p. 231, under the sub-heading “Tudor-Celtic Mythology”, he exposes the less-than-glamorous roots of the Tudor dynasty:

The Tudors were Welsh landowners…  …In the Tudors we have a self-consciously created dynasty aware of their weak claim to the throne, who buttressed their credentials by tracing their line from King Arthur, the once and future king.  In naming his firstborn son Arthur and having him christened at Winchester Cathedral, Henry VII was deliberately invoking the chivalry and glamour of Britain’s semi-mythical past, a considerable irony in view of his own grasping, ungenerous nature and his relentless undermining of the old feudal nobility. (SLK, p. 232)

Lest we forget, neither Edward Oxenford nor William Shakespeare ever wrote a play about Henry VII, whom Francis Bacon tells us severely undermined the 13th earl of Oxford’s power, in an apocryphal tale that sounds very much like one of madcap Ned de Vere’s bibulous inventions.  Continuing his deconstruction of the Tudor Myth, Beauclerk writes:

The Tudors, in the grandiosity generated by their lineal insecurity, embraced the notion that they were the promised descendants of Arthur…

Once on the throne, [Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond] played up the romantic image his deeds fostered in people’s minds.  In truth, the Tudor dynasty was founded upon conquest (and the killing of a king).”   “Despite his insistence that this was a reconquest, which avenged the original Saxon invasion, a deep insecurity accompanied the dynasty through its 118 years of rule. (p. 233)

Life for [Henry VIII] was theater; his every act invited a fanfare.  Yet all this show masked a deep insecurity, which became more conspicuous as his reign ripened. (p. 235)

As pater patriae (father of his people) and supreme governor of the Church of England, Henry VIII invested the monarchy with a revitalized, almost mystical sense of its sovereignty, yet he was an imperialist in outlook.  … His veneration for the traditions, music and architecture of the Catholic church sat uncomfortably with his desecration of the monasteries, and his love of chivalry and the joust contradicted his protracted attacks on the old feudal nobility. (p. 236)

Would the 17th earl of Oxford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England, whose ancestors came in with William the Conqueror, have drawn any solace from losing his de Vere blood in exchange for that of the insecure Tudors?  I don’t think so.

In my reading of the evidence, both historical and literary, the earl of Oxford drew his sustaining identity from his claim to the ancient Vere line and their affinity.  Their historical triumphs and quarrels were part of his legacy; their family traits were in his genetic makeup.  If Nick Bottom’s “mythic DNA is the Minotaur, the monstrous son – half man, half bull – of Minos, King of Crete” (SLK, p. 202) then so too is this strain running in the veins of the man who signed himself Edward Oxenford.  When he gazed upon the faces of the effigies that once graced Colne Priory, he was seeing his grandsires and grandams, and the faces of his own future heirs.  As we read in Chapman’s eulogy of Oxford in The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois:

…he had a face

Like one of the most ancient honour’d Romans

From whence his noblest family was deriv’d.

These were his people. If we lose sight of this, we lose our first and best contact with Edward de Vere and how he became “Shakespeare”.  He loved his honor as a Vere; he owned his shame as a Vere; he wreaked his vengeance as a Vere:

…when Gloucester sees a beggar in the storm, he thinks a man a worm, and at that moment his son Edgar comes into his mind.  Edgar, the outcast son, is the worm (worm in French being ver).  When Cleopatra arranges to die in her monument, a clown enters with an asp – or worm, as he calls it – hidden in a basket of figs. (SLK p. 372)

“He that has a house to put’s head in has a good head-piece” (III.ii. 25-26)


Say, is my kingdom lost? why, ’twas my care
And what loss is it to be rid of care? ~ Richard II

I agree with Beauclerk that Shakespeare’s plays and poems bear witness to the pain of having lost a kingdom, but in my view, (derived in large measure from the political understory of the Howard family in Titus Andronicus) that kingdom was more likely to have been in opposition to the Tudor line than a part of it.  On his own, Edward de Vere had three earthly kingdoms somewhat within his grasp, all of them lost by 1591.  The first was a Plantagenet alliance through marriage to one of the Hastings girls, which Beauclerk mentions on p. 71: “It looks as though John de Vere had taken it into his head to arrange a royal marriage for his teenage charge…”  The second was Oxford’s impetuous and near-treasonous support for his first cousin Thomas Howard, who lost his head over the hare-brained temptation to wed Mary, Queen of Scots.

The third lost kingdom, as Beauclerk notes, was the ancient seat of the Oxford earldom: “Then in December 1591, …Oxford surrendered the heart of his de Vere inheritance by alienating Hedingham Castle to Burghley in trust for his three daughters.  It was an abdication with rich consequences for literature, if King Lear is anything to judge by.” (p. 330)  But why would a prince of the realm and poet who boldly tells the queen’s chief minister “I am that I am” have any need for a paltry scepter?  Why would he be so foolish as to desire all the mundane distractions and obligations that turn a golden crown into a dull and heavy lump of lead?  The true kingdom that Oxford strove mightily to maintain in his own sovereign control was that of the mind:

As James Kirsch says of Hamlet and his father, so might we say of Shakespeare and Elizabeth: his kingdom was the inner world, hers the political realm. (p. 295)

As in Hamlet, the only true king seems to be a ghost.  Scratch the surface of these plays and one finds oneself staring at the crowned figure of vanity holding a skull in one hand and the fool’s bauble in the other. (p. 210-11)

As if he could not believe he had a true right to his inherited “kingdom” based in Essex, Oxford recklessly divested himself of all its physical trappings, till he had nothing to pass on but his name and his words.  The first went to his heirs of the blood, the second to his heirs of the spirit, an awesomely potent bequest that we still haven’t learned quite how to decipher.  The quest is daunting, too much for one lonely reader, or a whole fraternity of stargazers, to take on.  How can we bear to follow King Lear on his journey out into the raging tempest that mirrors the demons in his skull, once we know that he is not a stage puppet but a breathing portrait of the author, and the purified condensation of everything that the name “Shakespeare” calls up in our hearts and minds?  The jewel in the crown of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom is Beauclerk’s courageous attempt to do just that:

Opening one’s heart to a great work of literature of the intensity of King Lear is like setting forth on a pilgrimage toward an inner realm on the horizon of one’s being.  Reading and walking, if undertaken in the spirit of wonder and intrepidity that transforms them into a way of life, refresh the soul in profound and allied ways.  Thoreau’s advice to walkers would be my advice to Shakespeare’s readers: “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return – prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” As a work that shakes the foundations of western culture, King Lear demands this sort of self-abandonment.  We never quite return from the journey.

My copy of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom has furious scribbles in the margins of every other page, some of them less than polite.  Yet when I told Charles Beauclerk in no uncertain terms that I could not agree with his theory on Oxford’s birth, he was most gracious, replying that he is open to hearing other theories; would I send him a copy when I write up my thoughts?  His True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth may not be your cup of true, but it is certainly the work of a generous and intrepid spirit.    ~Marie Merkel

“You bee a sort of knaves”, sayd Skelton

January 16th, 2011 No comments
What is your theory?  That Oxford was born in 1548, the son of Joan Jockey?  What difference would that make to the creation of the Shakespeare canon?

Many thanks to the reader (identified below) who sent me this and a few other sharp questions about my re-examination of the documents relevant to Oxford’s birth.  Since any theory about Oxford’s true parentage would require DNA analysis to prove or conclusively refute, I’d better call this my hunch rather than theory.  In the spirit of possibility, I suggest these hypothetical and (to my mind) sensible reasons for the seemingly irrational or irresponsible marriages of John de Vere:

1. John de Vere made a bigamous marriage with “Joan Jockey ” because she was pregnant.  Otherwise, he would have just “kept her”, in the same manner that the witnesses of 1585 say he kept Anne of Tilbury Hall.

2. Earl John’s brothers-in-law Darcy and Sheffield disapproved of this alliance because Joan was a nobody, a mere village wench, and they wanted him to marry a somebody, preferably one of their kin.

3. Knowing that Lady Dorothy was dying, Darcy and Sheffield arranged for Enowes and Smith to “rid [Joan and Anne of Tilbury Hall] away from the …earl” because they wished him to marry one of their kin.  In Joan’s case, this “ridding away” required an act of horrific violence because John de Vere was very attached to his expectant second wife.  The men resorted to raping Joan and cutting her nose because they wished to destroy her as an honorable or attractive woman, and/or because their “spoiling” would cast permanent doubt on the paternity of Joan’s child, (if she was in the early stages of pregnancy), and/or because they wanted to leave the earl with zero temptation to make his marriage to Joan legal after the countess died.

4. John de Vere needed a wife in the spring of 1548 because Joan had given birth to a boy, and he wanted very much to raise the boy as his son and heir.  John became emotionally attached to this firstborn son from the woman he had married in White Colne Church because of the trauma she had suffered at the hands of his kin, and/or because his ancestors, the 13th and 14th earls of Oxford, had died without leaving a male heir, and/or because after ten years of marriage, his first wife Dorothy had only produced two daughters, with one dying “in swaddling clothes”.

I’ll be the first to admit that even if we find all of the above to be within the realm of possible, this very “possible” son may not have been Edward de Vere, and may not even have survived.  Nevertheless, I often imagine that Edward was Joan’s son.  For me, this narrative offers a more compassionate reading of John de Vere’s actions.  And the stain of bastardy –  in particular, the thought of such base blood possibly running in his noble veins – adds tremendous psychological depth to Edward Oxenford’s biography and to the works of his greatest biographer, William Shakespeare.

But that’s a topic for another day.  For now, I’d like to follow up the theme of John de Vere’s passion for his firstborn son (as I imagine), with another question from the same reader:

Once the Nevil heiress left [Earl John], [Darcy and Sheffield’s] need as representatives of the ruling party in their county, was to have the earl produce a male heir, as soon as possible, legally, by an appropriate member of the Essex upper classes, not someone like Joan Jockey.  Had Joan had a child, what need would there be to go through the elaborate process of getting him taken on as a foundling by another mother, one that was perfectly capable of producing children, as she did with Mary Vere.

On the first point, I’m not sure that Earl John’s in-laws needed him to produce a male heir, a.s.a.p.  What they didn’t need or want was an heir by commoners such as Joan, or Anne, or Dorothy Fosser.  Margery Golding’s family had the right connections – maybe not as good as the Wentworth match that Seymour and Darcy had hoped for, but she was a choice they could live with.

If Joan had given birth to the earl’s son, it would have been natural and humane for him to want to raise his own flesh and blood as his legal heir, rather than abandon him.  I imagine the price he might have demanded in return for lifting Margery Golding into the nobility was that she accept and raise this boy as her own.  It all comes down to a matter of the heart.  I believe John de Vere had a good one, and that his son remembered him with bemused respect and great melancholy.

Whatever the truth may be, as biographers seeking an empathetic understanding of our subject, how might we imagine Edward responding to the gossip he was bound to hear about Joan Jockey from his earliest years?  In 1566, three years after his sister Katherine challenged his “legitimacy of the blood”, someone put together a jest book deceptively entitled Merry Tales of Skelton.  Much to my surprise, in the Seventh Tale, I found an uncanny mirror of just how I’d imagined John de Vere’s love for his boy:

Skelton, the next Sunday after, went into the pulpit to preach, and said: Vos estis, vos estis, that is to say, You be, you be.  and what be you?  said Skelton.  I say, that you be a sort of knaves, yea, and a man might say worse then knaves; and why, I shall show you.  You have complained of me to the bishop that I do keep a fair wench in my house: I do tell you, if you had any fair wives, it were some what to help me at need; I am a man as you be: you have foul wives, and I have a fair wench, of the which I have begotten a fair boy, as I do think, and as you all shall see.

Thou wife, said Skelton, that hast my child, be not afraid; bring me hither my child to me; the which was done.  And he, showing his child naked to all the parish, said, how say you, neighbors all; is not this child as fair as is the best of all yours?  It hath nose, eyes, hands, and feet, as well as any of your:  it is not like a pig, nor a calf, nor like no foul nor no monstrous beast.  If I had, said Skelton, brought forth this child without arms or legs, or that it were deformed, being a monstrous thing, I would never have blamed you to have complained to the bishop of me; but to complain without a cause, I say, as I said before in my antethem, vos estis, you be, and have be, & will and shall be, knaves, to complain of me without a cause reasonable.

Does anyone else hear Shakespearean echoes in this?

Hamlet, as he contemplates suicide and the hereafter: “To be, or not to be.”

Shylock,  the despised, claiming his common humanity: “Hath not a Jew eyes; hath not a Jew hands?”

In Much Ado about Nothing, the 2nd watchman’s hilarious bumbling: “Bring Deformed forth”.

And Aaron the Moor, exulting in the birth of his bastard son:

‘Zounds, ye whore! is black so base a hue?
Sweet blowse, you are a beauteous blossom, sure.

Many thanks to Stephanie Hopkins Hughes for her good questions, and willingness to re-visit these disturbing years in Oxford’s biography.

“Why dost not speak to me?”

January 9th, 2011 No comments

Marcus Andronicus,

to his niece, Lavinia:


Why dost not speak to me?


Alas, a crimson River of warm blood,


Like to a bubbling Fountain stirred with wind,


Doth rise and fall between thy Rosed lips,


Coming and going with thy honied breath.


But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee,


And lest thou shouldst detect them cut thy tongue.

Without her saying a word, Marcus already knows an unspeakable shame has befallen his niece.  “And lest thou shouldst detect them” he says; he knows that she’s been attacked by more than one Tereus, and knows that the blood he sees on her face comes from a cut tongue.

Yet nothing in the play gives us any reason to suspect him of complicity in the crime – quite the opposite.  Throughout the furies of bloody vengeance, Marcus remains a totem of noble, compassionate stability.  He knows more than he should simply because his creator is not offering realistic drama, but a stylized pageantry of mythic revenge.  “Shakespeare”, in the person of Uncle Marcus, speaks like a young poet stumbling through a textbook translation of brute and nasty fact into beautified, exalted truth.

Some truths are too horrifying, or embarrassing, or dangerous to speak of, except through the shimmering veils of poetry or the grotesques of old wives’ tales.  Richard Enowes’ confessed crime of 1585 falls into this category.  Forty years pass before even a whisper of this callous gang rape surfaces in the records, and even that document leaves us with more questions than answers.  When did John de Vere learn of the attack on Joan?  When, if ever, did he discover who was responsible?  If he’d known that his sister Anne’s husband, Edmund Sheffield, and his sister Elizabeth’s husband, Thomas Darcy, had organized the assault, would he have chosen to remain silent rather than accuse his own kinsman and shame his family name?  Could he possibly have known all along just what they were up to?  As Alan Nelson observes:

The 16th Earl’s exact role in the attack on Joan Jockey is uncertain.  Either his two brothers-in-law acted to destroy an alliance that they regarded as a threat to their own interests; or the Earl cooperated in an effort to drive away a woman who had become a liability.  That the Earl was somehow complicit is suggested by the fact that Enowes and Smith stayed in his service, as revealed by the Earl’s will of 1562, while he remained on exceedingly good terms with Darcy, as revealed in his will of 1552.

When I first read this, it seemed to me that Nelson’s bias against Edward de Vere’s person had unfairly spilled over to the father.   He starts out on firm footing, recognizing the benefits of a potential new alliance to Darcy and Sheffield.  But then he neglects to examine other possible reasons for Earl John’s continued employment of Enowes and Smith, or the full, coercive context of those “good terms with Darcy”.  No where in his account do we learn of Earl John’s shattering loss of another brother-in-law, Henry Howard, beheaded in the midst of his erratic marriages.  Perhaps one needs to have lived in terror to recognize when others are manifesting the strains of life under a tyrant.

Truth to tell, my own response to the 1585 depositions has been equally biased.  In my earliest phase of writing about Titus Andronicus from an Oxfordian perspective, I was too ready to interpret “Shakespeare’s” dramatization of a similar rape, and how Uncle Marcus responds, as evidence of how the real author, Edward Oxenford, knew his father had reacted to the assault on Joan.  The lines I’ve quoted above, along with so much of the play,  seemed to me a wonderfully compassionate record of his father’s helpless fury over what his in-laws had done.  But for all we know, Oxford had never heard of Joan Jockey before 1585.

How would a trained historian approach the evidence, both documentary and literary? It seems to me that any account of Oxford’s life must begin with a clear, emotionally detached – left-brained if you will – assessment of the documents, before flying aloft with right-brain intuitions of a deeper, camouflaged truth.  I now know that my own first, second and third readings of the 1585 depositions failed to pick up many small hints and inconsistencies within the five different accounts.  The layout of the document made it very difficult (for me at least) to keep track of what question each man was answering, and who said what before and after him, in response to the same question.  For ease of comprehension, I’ve now reformatted the questions and answers, and posted what I hope will be a more reader-friendly version: 1585 Depositions Concerning Oxford’s Legitmacy. [filed under “The Life”, top menu]

In two earlier posts, “John de Vere’s firstborn son” and “The Goddess of Justice“, I’ve been laying the groundwork for an in-depth re-examination of every piece of evidence relevant to Oxford’s birth.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing six different summaries of what the 1585 depositions actually say:

1. Alan H. Nelson, who gives the fullest account of the Joan Jockey incident on  pp. 14-19 of Monstrous Adversary (2003).

2. Daphne Pearson, who briefly discusses Oxford’s legitimacy problems on pg. 25 and on pg. 112 of Edward de Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis and Consequences of Wardship (2005).

3. Mark Anderson, who talks about John de Vere and his marriage problems on pg. 3 and discusses the”bastardy lawsuit” of 1563 on pg. 24 of Shakespeare by Another Name (2005).

4. Charles Beauclerk, who summarizes these claims of illegitimacy on pp. 56-7 of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom (2010).

5. Christopher Paul, whose article, “The ‘Prince Tudor” Dilemma: Hip Thesis, Hypothesis, or Old Wives’ Tale?” is frequently cited as a rebuttal to adventurous theories about Oxford’s birth.

6. Nina Green, who deftly summarizes the 1585 Depositions; mentions the issue in the footnotes to her 2009 Brief Chronicles article,  “The Fall of the House of Oxford”, and again in her Oxmyth’s involving other individuals page, where she lists as “Myth” the assertion that “the 16th Earl’s second marriage, to Margery Golding, was ‘irregular’.”

If you know of an important discussion of this document that I’ve overlooked, whether published in a book, journal, newsletter or online, please send me a message so I can include it in this survey.  Many thanks!

Why dost not speak to me?

Alas, a crimson River of warm blood,

Like to a bubbling Fountain stirred with wind,

Doth rise and fall between thy Rosed lips,

Coming and going with thy honied breath.

But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee,

And lest thou shouldst detect them cut thy tongue.

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.