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Monstrous Adversary: The 17th Earl of Oxford

(This post appeared on 3 March, 2017, at the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog.)

Edward de Vere (12 April 1550 – 24 June 1604) was the 17th Earl of Oxford and not, by contemporary17th-earl-of-oxford accounts, a very nice man. Charles Arundel, once one of the earl’s closest friends, attributed these qualities to him:

  1. atheism
  2. pathological lying
  3. subornation
  4. murder by hire
  5. sedition
  6. sexual perversion including pederasty
  7. chronic inebriation
  8. nursing of private grudges (especially against members of the Howard family)
  9. lèse majesté. (treason committed against a sovereign power.)

For comparison, an article at Psychology Today list the major characteristics of a psychopath:

  1. cold-heartedness: being callous and showing a lack of empathy.
  2. lack of ‘social emotions’, like shame, guilt, remorse.
  3. irresponsibility and blaming others for events that are actually their fault.
  4. insincere speech, ranging from glibness to pathological lying.
  5. a grandiose sense of self worth; boastfulness.
  6. pathologic egocentricity: selfishness.
  7. inability to plan for the future, lack of realistic long-term goals.
  8. violence; a low tolerance for frustration.

If you read Alan Nelson’s well-grounded biography (see reference below), you’ll probably recognize the earl in that psychology article.

A wilful child

Little Edward was a chip off the old block. His father was a violent, wilful, and inconsequential man who never sat on the Privy Council or earned the Order of the Garter. His son likewise failed to achieve any honors from his queen or his peers over the course of his fifty-four years.

When the 16th earl died in 1562, twelve-year-old Edward became a ward of Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer and also Master of the Court of Wards. (Also Francis Bacon’s uncle.) Burgley ran a sort of School for Orphaned Earls in his spacious house on the Strand. Others in his care were Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland. A selective group!

hutton-swordplayBiographer Nelson suggests that the rebelliousness of Burghley’s wards stemmed from their frustration with the stodgy and pious atmosphere of Burghley House, where the boys were kept to a strict schedule with plenty of prayers. Essex and Southampton went so far as to rebel against the Queen herself in 1603.

But Oxford was more than merely rebellious. His first recorded act of violence was the killing of an undercook in 1567. Oxford was seventeen. He and a friend had been practicing with rapiers, the new weapon from the Continent. The exciting new weapon allowed the fighter to thrust and stab, rather than artlessly hacking away.

When the undercook chanced to walk across the yard, Oxford, wanting to test his new toy, drove the steel through the man’s thigh. The poor fellow died a few hours later. Burghley hastened to repress the scandal, managing the process so that the coroner’s official report stated that the undercook had been drunk and ran himself upon his lordship’s rapier while Oxford was merely  holding it in his hand, thus committing suicide. A masterpiece of spin!

Spare the rod and spoil the earl

Oxford received little punishment for the many acts of violence that punctuated his life. Nelson’s book examines several murders committed by Oxford’s men, presumably at his behest: “a massed attack on the residence of a personal enemy was, as we shall learn, Oxford’s modus operandi“.

Queen Elizabeth ignored that sort of thing among those of noble blood. But she tossed the earl into the anne-vavasourTower in 1581 for impregnating Anne Vavasour, a Maid of Honor. Anne was Towered as well, after delivering Oxford’s bastard son. Oxford never contributed anything toward the support or education of the boy.

This is hardly surprising, since he contributed next to nothing to the care of his three legitimate daughters, fruit of his union with Anne Cecil, Burghley’s daughter. Burghley brokered that match himself, eager to ally his upstart family with the ancient nobility. Alas, Oxford was no catch. Somehow he got it into his head during Anne’s first pregnancy that the child could not be his. True, he was in Italy during much of the relevant period, but not long enough to justify his accusations — seen as wicked and bizarre at the time. Oxford refused to see his wife or even live with her for five years. In spite of this callous behavior, Lord Burghley continued to defend him and supply him with funds on demand.

The wages of sin

Oxford ran through money like a socialite on a spree on Rodeo Drive. His estate was worth £12,000 in 1575. When he died in 1604, he left more debts than assets. He spent money on clothes, weapons, books, travel (especially to Italy, which he loved), retainers (a gang of violent men), and lush living.

He liked to host grand dinner parties, at which he would regale his friends with boasts and scandalous talk about his rivals and his intimate relations with the queen. He bragged that he had been offered £1,000 a year by the Pope, presumably for aiding the cause of returning England to the Catholic fold. He claimed the beauteous Countess of Mirandola had traveled 50 miles to share his bed.

He formed lifelong grudges against any man who rose in the queen’s esteem, like Sir Philip Sydney, Sir Walter Ralegh, and the Earl of Leicester. He sent an armed man to assault Sir Walter in a narrow lane behind the tennis courts at Whitehall. Unsuccessfully, needless to say. Sir Walter was no easy target.

The vampire earl

In 1584, the earl accused his best friends of treason — conspiring with Rome. History doesn’t tell us why; a rash whim or bitter humour, one supposes. The erstwhile friends rushed to testify against him to save their own skins. Charles Arundel is the one who called him “my monstrus adversarye Oxford, who wold drinke my blud rather than wine, as well as he loves it.”

signature_Edward_de_Vere_Earl_of_OxfordOxford believed in satanic magics and weird prophesies. He flirted with Catholicism, doubtless attracted by the pomp and mystery, as well as the sheer danger of dancing with the enemy. He claimed to have had visions, some holy, others profane.

All in all, he was a truly appalling example of humanity, although Nelson manages to identify one positive trait. “[H]e was of course a fine calligrapher.” Lovely handwriting; perhaps the saddest of all epitaphs.

References

Hutton, Alfred. 1892. Old Swordplay: A glance at the systems of fence in vogue during the XVIth, XVIIth, and XVIIIth centuries, with lessons arranged from the works of various ancient masters for the practical study of the use of the picturesque arms borne of forefathers. London: H. Grevel & Co.

Nelson, Alan. 2003. Monstrous Adversary: The life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Liverpool University Press. [Amazon link.]

 

Victorian: Friday the 13th

black-catToday is Friday the 13th, so I felt the need to write something about the history of our attitudes toward this day. To my surprise, the history doesn’t go back very far. The idea that the day is unlucky appears to be one of those arch* Victorian inventions — an amalgam of unlucky thirteen with unlucky Friday.

Thirteen is considered unlucky because there were 13 men at the table during Christ’s last supper. The thirteenth was his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. That feels like a rather monkish reason to me, but these things do leak out of the monastery and go native, as it were. In Italy, a largely Catholic country, 13 is a lucky number. 17 is the one to be avoided.

Friday is unlucky because Christ died on a Friday. On the other hand, many people nowadays Thank God It’s Friday. In Hispanic cultures, Tuesday is unlucky, owing to its association with the dangerous god of war, Mars (martes, merdi.) That makes more sense to me.

The two were combined in 1907 in Thomas W. Lawson‘s popular novel Friday, the Thirteenth. In the novel, an unscrupulous stock broker takes advantage of the superstition to create a Wall Street panic on Friday the 13th.

The astute reader will notice the circularity of this argument: the superstition became popular after its popularity was exploited.

Just because it’s all in your mind doesn’t mean it isn’t real

black-lab
Fear me, for I am Labrador.

However it began, the fear is real. The Wikipedia article observes, “According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of this day, making it the most feared day and date in history. Some people are so paralyzed by fear that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed. “It’s been estimated that $800 or $900 million is lost in business on this day.””

Astounding! And a useful excuse, for those of you still gainfully employed. If you want a fancy word to use when calling in sick, tell them you suffer from Triskaidekaphobia.

Other superstitions persist. When I was adopting Lacey the Labrador, someone at the dog rescue organization told me many people are reluctant to adopt black dogs. Ghost dogs or black dogs appear when death is nigh. You don’t want one of those in your house!

Black cats can be either lucky (Celts, Britain generally) or unlucky (Europe). I believe cats deliberately cultivate that ambiguity.

*”arch,” I word I tend to misuse. I always imagine it means, “pretending to be childlike or playful in an annoyingly exaggerated manner.” OED says it means, “Clever, cunning, crafty, roguish, waggish. Now usually of women and children, and esp. of their facial expression: Slyly saucy, pleasantly mischievous.” Either way, it was a favored attitude of the Victorians.