(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 contemporary accounts, a very nice man. Charles Arundel, once one of the earl’s closest friends, attributed these qualities to him:
- pathological lying
- murder by hire
- sexual perversion including pederasty
- chronic inebriation
- nursing of private grudges (especially against members of the Howard family)
- lèse majesté. (treason committed against a sovereign power.)
For comparison, an article at Psychology Today list the major characteristics of a psychopath:
- cold-heartedness: being callous and showing a lack of empathy.
- lack of ‘social emotions’, like shame, guilt, remorse.
- irresponsibility and blaming others for events that are actually their fault.
- insincere speech, ranging from glibness to pathological lying.
- a grandiose sense of self worth; boastfulness.
- pathologic egocentricity: selfishness.
- inability to plan for the future, lack of realistic long-term goals.
- 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!
Biographer 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 Tower 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.”
Oxford 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.
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.]