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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Desperately Seeking Bridget (de Vere)

Elizabeth Wray,
3rd Baroness Norris of Rycote.
Daughter of Bridget de Vere.
Standard Citation: Purdy, Gilbert Wesley. “Desperately Seeking Bridget (de Vere)Virtual Grub Street. 24 August 2014.

1. The least well known of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford’s, daughters is Bridget.  She was born on April 6, 1584, and was the middle of the three daughters born to Edward and his Countess Anne Cecil.

2. Even most people who assert that the Earl of Oxford was the poet and playwright Shake-speare (a group to which I resoundingly belong) do not seem to know that she was engaged, in 1598, to William Herbert, soon to inherit the Earldom of Pembroke, much less that she is likely the model for the character of Katherine in the play Jack Drum’s Entertainment, based more or less upon the events of that love story.[1]  The contract between the families would fall through, however, and Bridget would marry Francis Norris in 1599.  Norris would inherit the title Baron Norris of Rycote two years later upon the death of his grandfather.

3. Herbert would go on to become the Lord Chamberlain to King James I.  His brother Philip would marry Bridget’s younger sister Susan, during the Royal Christmas holidays of 1604, and, shortly thereafter, be created the Earl of Montgomery.  The two brothers would oversee the publication of the First Folio of the plays of Shake-speare.

4. Bridget’s years as Lady Norris (or Norreys), Baroness of Rycote, have been represented as nearly barren of historical record.  Francis Norris’s grandfather was much more in the news at Court than he and clearly among the most blunt, aggressive lords of the time.  Signs are that the grandson followed suit and was even psychologically unstable.  Bridget may have lived a dark life under his domination.  The two had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1603.

5. For some reason, Francis and Bridget had a small private wedding.  Such a fact was quite unusual for persons of their station.  Suggestions have been made that the recent death of her grandfather, William Cecil, the Baron Burghley, essentially the highest ranking non-royal citizen of the realm, and/or a number of recent deaths in Norris’s family led to the decision.

6. Until her marriage, her Uncle Robert Cecil, Principal Secretary of England, had managed her financial affairs.  In October of 1601, he entered a final accounting of her finances in his records.   In it we learn that her portion from her grandfather’s will was ₤6,537 in ready money and ₤1,256 in jewels, plate and other chattel.  She already received over ₤600 annually from unspecified rents.

7. Bridget’s final balance, however, left her with a debt of some hundreds of pounds largely due to an unspecified “purchase” amounting to ₤6,217.  Her Uncle being zealous in her behalf, it appears likely that this represents his having placed the bulk of her inheritance into a trust or annuity out of the reach of her husband and possibly also as a safeguard against her lending to her father, Edward de Vere, from whom it is said Burghley had rigorously arranged to protect his granddaughters’ inheritances.[2]

8. In 1605, Lord Norris fell ill for what would be a protracted time.  The next we hear of Lady Norris is recounted in Charles Dalton’s excellent history of the Wray family.

The next mention made in the letters in the State Paper Office (from the published abstracts of which letters I derive my information) regarding the young Lord Norreys, is in a letter dated 1605, and is as follows: “Lord Norreys is at Bath, separated from his wife.” And a letter dated a few months later says: “Lady Norreys is at Cope Castle, separated from Lord Norreys.”[3]

Notwithstanding his illness or two year old daughter, the Baron Norris refused to meet the compromises offered by Robert Cecil and other intermediaries in order to be reconciled with his wife.  The details of Norris’s counterproposals are a matter again of presently inaccessible state papers.  For all intents and purposes, the Baron seems clearly to have felt it was her responsibility to return to her lord and master without conditions.

9. The well-known public servant Dudley Carleton seems to have been able to get along with the erratic Baron as well as anybody.  As matters worsened, Cecil, then Earl of Salisbury, called upon him to intervene with Francis.  Bridget had set up house in Cope Castle (later known as Holland House).  In April of 1608, Carleton received assurance from Norris that “His half-yearly payment to his wife is ready.”[4]  Another letter, of August 1608, preserved among the State Papers of the time, gives an overview:

“Lord Norreys is very ill at Bath, and not likely to recover. He is practising to disinherit his daughter. The Earl of Salisbury is desirous Carleton should go to Bath to prevent so unjust an act. It would confirm the scandal cast upon Lady Norreys at the time of her separation from her husband.”[5]

The two were already continuously separated for some two years by this time.  This was in no small part because the Baron had traveled to the continent (largely to Spain) in respect of the extended illness for which we have only the most limited information.

10. Among the reasons the Baron may have wished to disinherit his daughter, Elizabeth, might have been the pregnancy of his mistress Sarah Rose.  He could not, however, yet have known that the child would be a boy.  Young Francis would be the Baron’s cherished child and would, via an indenture established in 1619, receive a portion of his lands upon his death.[6]

11. All we would seem to know of Bridget de Vere, Lady Norris, between 1608 and the Baron’s death, is that she resided at Cope Castle, and received a semi-annual allowance for her needs.  For the time being, her uncle, Robert Cecil, was watchful for her welfare, Dudley Carleton as his primary agent.  Upon Cecil’s death, in 1612, what protection and support she might have received would have come from Edward de Vere’s son, by his second marriage, Henry de Vere, the 18th Earl of Oxford, and from the far more powerful Herbert brothers, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery.

12. Suddenly, around the year 1610, the Baron Norris was much more in the news of the time.  The Vere’s and Herberts were by no means the only supporters Bridget had.  In that year, the Baron is said to have been rebuked for his behavior toward her, by Peregrine Willoughby, after services in a church.  Willoughby was the second son of Mary de Vere, sister to Edward de Vere.  Norris, as aggressive and unstable as always, drew upon Willoughby, on the spot, and seriously wounded him.  Willoughby’s servant was killed.

13. While Norris was every bit the unstable peer described here, however, he was also a cultured, a spirited and a dedicated member of the King’s social circle.  James I highly valued those qualities in him.  During the next session of the courts, Norris was found guilty of manslaughter and was released after a short incarceration.   He requested and received a pardon from the King.[7]

14. In 1620, the King further showed his favor by creating Norris the Earl of Berkshire and Viscount Thame.[8]  Perhaps as the result, he began being particularly violent and unstable in 1620 and in 1621, and, during the latter year, was arrested for physically jostling Lord Scrope in the House of Lords, in Parliament.  Such an act in such a place against such a person could not be overlooked and Norris was imprisoned for a time as punishment.  In January of 1622, shortly after his release, he was found dead of self-inflicted crossbow wounds.  The coroner’s verdict was suicide.

15. Even to gather together this much about Bridget de Vere’s life and the events surrounding it, requires unusual persistence.  It would seem to be all that is generally known of even among the few professional historians who have spent time researching her life.  Actually, it is somewhat more than was harvested until now.

16. Upon the finding of suicide, the Bridget was stripped of the titles that came with her husband.  Francis’s lands were confiscated to the crown.  She could no longer style herself Countess of Berkshire or Baroness Norris.  Unless one searches with unusual persistence, it seems, at this point, as if Bridget disappears from history.  No one is precisely sure when she died.

17. Bridget’s 19 year old daughter, Elizabeth Norris, however, became a ward of the King, who lodged her with her uncle, Philip Herbert, the Earl of Montgomery.   Montgomery would manage her estate until she should marry.  This arrangement led to the standard rumors that the pretty young woman became Montgomery’s mistress.

18. But Bridget did not disappear.  Her powerful allies at Court, through the Vere and Pembroke lines, the latter great favorites of King James, arranged that her daughter Elizabeth could take back the title of Baroness Norris de jure (i. e. by legal judgment).  It is unclear just what lands might have been restored but they must have been considerable given the interest for her hand in marriage.

19. And marry Elizabeth did.  Her uncle had been determined to make her a match with a brother of the young Court favorite, the Earl of Buckingham, which she resisted.  Her personal choice fell upon Edward Wray, gentleman Groom of the Bedchamber to the King.  Montgomery’s word being law, she took matters into her own hands:

The Earl of Berkshire's daughter who was kept at the Earl of Montgomery's, got out of the house early, walked three miles on foot, and was there met and taken to Aldermary Church where she married Mr. Wray; of the Bedchamber; they thence went to the Earl of Oxford's house in Fleet Street, he being in the plot. Lord Montgomery sent to fetch her away but Oxford would not give her up. His commission is taken from him and Wray put out of the Bedchamber.[9]

Wray and Oxford were clapped in prison for their efforts.  Edward Wray was released on February 15, 1623.  The Earl of Oxford was not so lucky.  Whereas Wray was a member of the circle of friends surrounding the Earl of Buckingham, Prince Charles’s favorite, Oxford decidedly was not.  His total time in prison came to some 20 months, after which the appeals of his inamorata, and cousin, Lady Diana Cecil, brought him freedom and a wife of his own.

20. In an interesting sidelight, Pembroke and Montgomery were also engaging the services of Ben Jonson, while all of this was going on, to produce the aforementioned First Folio of the plays of Elizabeth’s grandfather, Edward de Vere, who wrote under the penname William Shake-speare.[10]  The edition would come out in November of 1623 while Edward’s son, Henry, pleaded to be released from prison.

21. Oxford’s freedom was short lived, sad to say.  He was reputed to be more than a little overweight.  Two years later, in June 1625, he died at The Hague from “a sunstroke”[11] he suffered from over exerting himself during the battle of Breda.[12]

22. Oxford’s biography in the Dictionary of National Biography[13] refers to the cause of death as “a fever”.  This perhaps due to the fact that the Earl also suffered a minor bullet wound.  Such a wound suggests that Infection might have been the cause.  Horace Walpole, however, who is the ultimate historical source of obscure information about the noble houses of England, directly states, in a note in his Life of Edward, Lord Herbert, that Oxford died of “a sunstroke” suffered during the battle.  The fierce engagement, at Terheyde, in which he received his wound occurred mid-May.[14]  The city capitulated on June 2nd.  Somewhere within those two weeks Oxford, having over-exerted himself, removed to the Hague where he perished, the word of his death being dispatched to family and friends by June 12th.

23. As for Bridget, it is said that, shortly after her husband’s death, she was being mentioned as a prospective wife of Philip Mainwaring.[15]  Upon her husband’s death, she would have been 38 years old.  Mainwaring was member of the House of Commons, in Parliament, and a hanger-on at court who years later would manage to acquire a knighthood at the cost of a highly dubious reputation for serial brown-nosing.

24. That she did not marry Mainwaring is clear, as she did marry Hugh Pollard.  Pollard was the son of a wealthy and influential country squire.  In 1627 his father would be created Baronet of King’s Nympton.  Hugh himself would inherit the title in 1641. 

25. Bridget gave Pollard his only child, Margaret.  This would suggest that she remarried very shortly after her first husband’s death.  I can find neither birth records for Margaret nor funerary records for her mother.  At present, the only fact that would seem to be known about Margaret is that she was born.   Bridget is said to have died in 1630 or 1631.  Based upon what evidence I cannot say.  She would appear to have shared one last trait with her father, Edward.  The two were the only two members of the direct line of the Earls of Oxford, during their time, who do not seem to have been interred at Westminster Abbey.

26. There is, then, only one further and fascinating fact left to learn of Bridget de Vere’s life.  Her daughter Elizabeth remained titled “Baroness Norris,” but the title did not extend to her husband.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth would have a daughter, Bridget, born in 1627,[16] who would receive the title upon her mother’s death.  This may have been because of the terms by which she received the de juris restoration of her title.  Or it might reflect the Royal disfavor at Edward Wray's having disobeyed the laws regarding marriage contracts between noble families.

27. Edward being the third son of a Baronet, he lived his life without title and with moderate wealth.  Dismissed from Royal service in any capacity and refused knighthood, presumably for his infraction, he and Elizabeth, the 3rd Baroness Norris, lived all their lives quite apart from London and the Court.

28. Elizabeth’s daughter, named after her grandmother, however, would marry well — eventually, very well.  Bridget first married Edward Sackville, second son of the Earl of Dorset[17] shortly before her mother’s death in October 1645.  Sackville, it turns out, was murdered the next April by one of his own soldiers at the Abingdon Garrison.  The presumption is that the death was a result of the Civil War then in progress.

29. Soon afterwards, Bridget married Montague Bertie, the Earl of Lindsey.[18]  It may be interesting to note that Bertie was another of the Willoughby Berties, descended from Mary de Vere, sister of Edward de Vere.  For this reason, when Henry de Vere’s death ended the direct Vere line of the Earls of Oxford, the hereditary position of the Earls of Oxford, as Lord Great Chamberlain to the King, was awarded to him, the husband of Edward’s great granddaughter.

30. The Marriage was the Earl’s second.  He and Bridget added three sons and a daughter to his already burgeoning progeny.  James, the eldest of the sons, would become the 5th and last Baron Norris, and the Earl of Abington, as the Barony was allowed to lapse upon his death in favor of the latter title.

31. Bridget herself would become the grand matron of the various families to which she was related.  In 1649 or 1650, she received a poetry manuscript of 52 pages dedicated to her in her full panoply of titles: “To the Right Noble and vertuous Lady, the Lady Bridget, Countess of Lindsey, and Baroness of Eresbie and Ricot, in verse, with Verses to the Right Hon. Francis Lord Norreys, Earl of Berkshire (in his day).”  The Francis Lord Norreys, refers to her grandfather, the 2nd Baron Norris, indicating that the verses to Francis were written at the time Bridget de Vere’s husband was still living and that the poet must have been a servant of the Baron. 

32. The poem to Francis appears as a fragment, in the manuscript, perhaps a reflection on how long the poet had kept it among his manuscripts.

O true nobilitie, and rightly grac’d
With all the jewels that on thee depend;
Where goodnesse doth with greatnesse live embrac’d,
And outward stiles on inward worth attend;
Where ample lands in ample hands are plac’d,
And ancient deeds with ancient coats descend:
Where noble bloud combi’ d with noble spirit
Forefathers fames doth, with their forms, inherit:
Where ancestors examples are perus’d
Not in large tomes or costly tombs alone,
But in their heires; and, being dayly us’d,
Are (like their robes) more honourable growne:
Where Loyalty with Piety is infus’d,
And publique rights are cherished with their owne;
Where worth still finds respect; good friend, good word;
Desart, reward. And such is Ricot's Lord.
But what make I (vaine voice) in midst of all
The Quires that have already sung the fame
Of this great House, and those that henceforth shall
(As that will last) for ever sing the same?
But if on me my garland justly fall,
I justly owe my musique to this name:
For he unlawfully usurps the Bayes,
That has not sung in noble Norrey's prayse.
In playne (my honour’d Lord) I was not borne,
Audacious vowes, or forraigne legs, to use;
Nature denyed my outside to adorne,
And I of art to learne outsides refuse.
Yet, haveing of them both enough to scorne
Silence & vulgar prayse, this humble Muse,
And her meane favourite, at your command
Chose, in this kinde, to kisse your noble hand.[19]

The poet, William Basse, began as a musician and writer of songs, in 1602, and wrote occasional poems, for many years. He also wrote poems to pass in manuscript between his friends, as was then the style for gentlemen, before he finally published a volume of his poems, late in his long life, in 1653.[20]

33. For all the man was a fine poet, well worth preserving, he is actually known now for a single poem.  In 1633, the first volume of the collected poems by John Donne was published.  In that volume was an “Epitaph upon William Shakespeare”.  The poem was not republished with any of the subsequent editions of works of John Donne. 

34. Instead, it was next included in the 1640 edition of the poems of William Shakespeare, under the initials “W. B.,” and the title “On Mr. Wm Shakespeare, he dyed in aprill 1616”.  Numerous manuscript copies discovered later establish the attribution of the poem to William Basse.

35. But the “Epitaph” is a very special poem, indeed.  It is an undisputed fact that Ben Jonson’s elegy on Shakespeare, in the front matter of the First Folio, contained lines written in direct response to the “Epitaph”.  Therefore, it had to be written before the First Folio was being produced, in 1622-23.

36. Moreover, the “Epitaph” seems clearly to indicate that the author understood Shakespeare to have no monument, at the time they were written, and no epitaph on a simple tomb in which he lay.  It is for this reason that the poet provides his “Epitaph”. 

Epitaph upon William Shakespeare

Renowned Spencer lye a thought more nye
To learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumond lye
A little neerer Spenser, to make roome
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fowerfold Tombe.
To lodge all fowre in one bed make a shift
Vntill Doomesdaye, for hardly will a fift
Betwixt ye day and yis by Fate be slayne,
For whom your Curtaines may be drawn againe.
If your precedency in death doth barre
A fourth place in your sacred sepulcher,
In this uncarued[21] marble of thine owne,
Sleepe, rare Tragoedian, Shakespeare, sleep alone;
Thy unmolested peace, vnshared Caue,
Possesse as Lord, not Tenant, of thy Graue,
That vnto us & others it may be
Honor hereafter to be layde by thee.

Jonson’s answer (and the new title given to the “Epitaph” in its next appearance, in the Poems of 1640) could easily be construed as an attempt to explain away these incongruities in a highly popular poem which was widely circulated in manuscript prior to the First Folio and would subsequently be even more widely circulated in one of the most popular books of poems published between the Folio and the Poems of 1640.

37. What has yet to be noticed is that there is another among the incongruities involved with this “Epitaph”. William Basse, the poet who wrote it, was a familiar and servant to Francis, Baron Norris, husband of the original Bridget, Baroness Norris, the daughter and son-in-law of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who wrote under the penname Shake-speare.  How remarkable a coincidence that two of the sons-in-law of De Vere oversaw the publication of the First Folio of the plays of William Shake-speare and that a servant of his third son-in-law wrote the earliest known poem celebrating his greatness after his death, a poem that seems to described not the Monument in Stratford but a simple, unadorned slab of marble such as that under which Edward de Vere was buried in Hackney.

38. The Earl of Lindsey was a staunch Royalist in the English Civil War.  Upon the execution of King Charles I he retired from public life and managed to keep his lands intact.  Bridget, his wife, died in March of 1656, some months after the birth of her last child, Mary, in September 1st, 1655.  She was buried in the St. Andrew’s Chapel, at Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of many of the members of the branch of the Vere family directly descended from the Earls of Oxford.[22]

[1] Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is portrayed as Edward Fortune, Katherine’s father.
[2] Calendar of the manuscripts of the Most Honorable the Marquess of Salisbury, Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1906.  Volume 11 @ 399.
[3] History of the Wrays of Glentworth 1523-1852, Volume 1 (1880) by Charles Dalton @ 180.
[4] Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, James I, 1603-1610.  (1857) @ 422.
[5] Wrays @ 183; Dom. James I August 30, 1608 @ 454.
[6] Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 14. @ 565.
[7] Wrays @ 184.
[8] The Extinct Peerage of England (1769) by Samuel Bolton.  @ 204.
[9] Wrays  I @ 193.
[10] Edward  de Vere was Shake-speare: at long last the proof  (2013) by Gilbert Wesley Purdy @ ix-xii.
[11] The Fighting Veres (1888) by Clements Markham @ 427-8.  “The Earl of Oxford was wounded and received a sunstroke, dying at the Hague a few months afterwards, aged thirty-six.”  The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Written by himself. (1778) ed. Horace Walpole.  Note @ 184.   “Henry Vere earl of Oxford. He died at the Hague in 1625 of a sickness contracted at the siege of Breda where being a very corpulent man he had overheated himself.”  The Walpole note seems clearly to be the source of this assigned cause of death in later works.
[12] See also my own “Did Shake-speare Die of a Stroke?”  Virtual Grub Street, August 3, 2014.  On the possible propensity of the Vere Earls of Oxford to suffer high blood-pressure and stroke.
[13] The Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 58, 234-5 @ 235.
[14] Fighting Veres. Note @ 428.  ‘In a letter to his Countess, dated May 15, 1625, at Gertruydenburg, he wrote: “This letter is to show I am well lest reports might err. The vanguard attacked Terheyde under the Lord General Vere and myself. Our nation lost no honour, but many brave gentlemen their lives. My ensign T. Stanhope was killed upon the place. Captain J. Cromwell is dangerously hurt. We fought as long as our ammunition lasted, and I was shot in my left arm.” (Letter in possession of Miss Conway Griffith, Carreglwyd, Anglesea. Fifth Report of Comm’rs App.’
[15] Wrays @ 198.
[16] Ibid. @ 201.
[17] Wrays @ 203.  ‘The date of Edward Sackville's death is given in the Gentleman's Magazine, as mentioned in a topographical account of Witham: “I646, April 11. Mr, Edward Sackville, second son to the Right Honourable the Earl of Dorset, unfortunately slayne by a souldier of Abingdon Garrison, near Commer, in the County of Berkshire, was buried here May 18.”’
[18] Ibid. @ 204-5.  Mr. Dalton refers to Bridget’s “numerous estates,” bestowed with her upon Bertie, which seems to be an assumption.  I am not aware of any accounting which shows what lands of the 2nd Baron Norris, which reverted to the Crown, he being a suicide, were subsequently returned to the Baron’s heirs.   My assumption is that some portion of the lands must have been returned in order for Norris’s immediate female descendants to remain attractive marriage matches.
[19] The poetical works of William Basse (1893) ed. Richard Warwick Bond. @ 153-4.
[20] The Pastorals and other Workes of William Basse (1653).  This volume is by no means a collected poems and it did not include the “Epitaph Upon Shakespeare” as w ell as a great many other of Basse’s poems.  Most were drawn from his later poems.
[21] The poetical works of William Basse @ 115-16.   I have restored the phrase “Under this carved” to “In this uncarved” as it appeared in the earliest known texts.  The later variant was made the standard text in order to make it conform with the facts of the Stratford Monument.    Shakespeare’s Centurie of Prayse (2nd Edition, 1879) by C. M. Ingleby.  Expanded and edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith.  Pp. 136-140 @ 137.  A note by Toulmin Smith makes clear that the earlier manuscripts of the poem read “In this uncarved” and the later manuscripts “Under this carved”.  Her dating of the various manuscripts is in perfect accord with the accepted scholarship.  ‘We believe that the Fennell version (adopted as our text) “In this uncarved marble” is an earlier, as it is unquestionably a much finer reading, than either “Under this carved marble,” or “Under this sable marble,” which last occurs in the Sloane copy.’
[22] Wrays @ 208.

More from Virtual Grub Street on Shake-speare and Edward de Vere:

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Did Shake-speare Die of a Stroke?

Edward de Vere by
Marcus Gheeraerts
the Younger
While reading through the letters of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, doing research for my second Shakespeare Authorship book (a book of targetted essays this time around), it suddenly dawned on me that I had long failed to see a striking pattern in the Earl’s biography.  I’ve set my research for the book aside, momentarily, then, to pull together the scattered pieces of that pattern for this essay.

On July 28, 1562, the 16th Earl of Oxford, John de Vere, signed his final will and testament.  He died five days later.  Because he was the father to Edward de Vere, a candidate for having written the works of Shake-speare, and the 17th Earl, John de Vere’s death has occasionally come under more scrutiny than might attend upon the average 16th century earl.

In fact, John de Vere had spent the summer, to that point, getting the various legal affairs of his Earldom in order.  Among the conjecture historians and scholars have indulged as to his reasons, has been the possibility that he knew that he was near death.  On the other hand, none of the legal documents that survive gives explicit indication that he was preparing for such an event.  One document, in particular, made clear that de Vere at least hoped to live six years longer (the duration of the agreement).  The will and testament, it has been pointed out, replaced a ten year old will written under considerably different circumstances.  Perhaps, it was simply high time that it be updated.

The Veres had long held the Earldom of Oxford.  For this reason, we can be quite sure of the dates of birth and demise and the conditions under which each occurred.  None of the earls, from the first to the 17th, would die in any of the many battles in which they participated.  Perhaps more remarkably, only one would be executed for crimes against the king or realm.  All but that one seem to have died at home.

Still, with all the health advantages of being among the wealthiest and highest ranking persons in the country, the average lifespan of the 16 Earls of Oxford who died of natural causes was 50.75 years.  It was not at all out of the ordinary, then, that John de Vere, having the Vere DNA, should die at 46 years of age.

     But did his sudden flourish to get his affairs in order mean that he at least suspected that his death might not be far off?  If so, what signs might have convinced him that it was best to err on the side of caution?

As seems to have been the case with all Earls of Oxford before him, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was physically vigorous.  As was the case of the others, he had dark brown hair, brown (one portrait suggests hazel) eyes, sharp facial features, and a slightly ruddy complexion.  Physically, he was a Vere male from head to foot.

Moreover, Edward was of robust health throughout at least his first 40 years.  The sole exception would seem to be a serious knife wound he received, somewhere in the leg and/or groin area, from a duel fought in 1583.  His immune system withstood the test of receiving a deep wound in an age without sterile procedures.  No further complications are explicitly mentioned regarding the matter.

In 1590, Edward’s letters begin to beg his correspondents’ pardons for his not having been able to pay them customary visits.  The reason given is poor health.  Soon lameness is mentioned in a leg.  I myself have suggested that circumstantial evidence would seem to indicate that he had suffered more serious damage than anyone had known, to that point, from the wound received in 1583.  I still feel that muscle damage from the wound is the likely cause of the lameness but I have since had to admit another possibility.

In 1590, Edward was 40 years old.  Nearly a quarter of the Earls of Oxford had died, without violence being involved, by that age.  If his repeated assertions of poor health were neither excuses nor euphemisms for a revived problem relating to the earlier stab wound, it stands to reason that the De Vere DNA might be next in order of possibility.

Because De Vere’s lameness (and the corresponding lameness mentioned in the sonnets of Shake-speare) is a widely known and cited fact, I had come in the habit of glossing over the lameness mentioned in the letters while researching other matters less settled.  I imagine that I am not the only person to have done so.  I was recently rereading the letters concerning another of their aspects when suddenly I realized I’d been very wrong to do so.

In 1596 Edward and his second wife, the Countess Elizabeth, moved to King’s Place, Hackney.  Elizabeth was a Trentham and her family estate in Hackney would be his home for the remainder of his life.  It was close enough to the Royal Court (be it in residence at Windsor or Greenwich) and to London to allow him to travel to those places so central to his life.  He made such travels less and less frequently, however, as the years passed.

In October of 1601 De Vere begins to complain of his health again in letters to his brother-in-law, Robert Cecil, who was representing him in certain legal matters at Court.  He begins a letter My very good Brother, yf my helthe hadd beene to my mynde I wowlde have beene before this att the Coorte,…”[1].  No details are given, but it was not meant as a convenient excuse, as subsequent letters show, and must have been a difficult thing for once so physically vital a man as him to admit.  It is quite possible, from the available evidence, to suspect that Edward had been much reduced in health as early as his first protestations in 1590, when he was 40 years of age.  It is tempting to attribute his move to Hackney as an attempt to get some distance from the social obligations of London in an attempt to recover — an attempt to live a less stressful lifestyle.

In 1601, De Vere was 51 years of age: as old as De Vere earls tended to live.  It is reasonable to ask whether Edward’s letters are our best evidence as to what genetic trait might have caused most of their lives to end early and under circumstances giving no suggestion of violence.  There will be considerable reason to think so.

The death of Edward de Vere, some three years later, in 1604, has been conjectured to be due to any number of causes.  Some even think that he did not die in that year but was secreted away.  I will say no more about the fringe theories.

A note was entered in the registry of St. Augustine Church, in Hackney, near the record of Edward’s passing, reads “plague” but the note is not immediately next to his name.  It is not clear that the entry refers to him.  Furthermore, there is no record of the plague being at large in the area at the time.  Death by the dreaded plague would, however, possibly explain why the earl was buried without ceremony.

Between the October 1601 letter and his death, however, come several others two of which concern us here.  On November 22, De Vere opens a letter (again to Cecil), “My good Brother, in that I haue not sent an answer to yowre laste letter, as yow myght expect, I shall desyre yow too hould me for exscused, sythe ever sythence the receyt therof by reason of my syknes I have not been able to wryght.”  Far more importantly, for present purposes, he ends the letter with a stunning statement of his most bothersome symptom: “…desyring yow to beare with the weaknes of my lame hand, I take my leaue from Hakney this 22th of November 1601.”[2]  The earl has lost the strength in his writing hand.

Again he refers to the effect as a lameness.  This can only raise the question as to whether his 1590 “lameness” was actually, or only, due to his groin injury.  His protestations of ill-health were not unlike those we read now and in the next letter we will quote.  Could the assumption that the illness he referred to in his 1590 letters was a euphemism for a persistent groin area pain be all or partly incorrect?  Could the illness have been something else altogether?

Could John de Vere, the 16th Earl, have been putting his house in order because he too was experiencing periods of debilitating illness followed by weakness in one or more of his limbs?  Did he put his house in order just in case the worst should come to pass, while bravely planning nonetheless to live?

In January 1602, two and a half years before he will die, Edward writes “… thus wythe a lame hand, to wright I take my leue,…”[3].  This letter was written some three months after he first mentions being unable to travel due to illness.  It is written some two months after the first extant mention of his “lame” hand.  The clear implication is that he has been suffering an extended illness which expresses itself, in part, by a weakness in his writing hand.

Of course, the most common cause of such a symptom is a stroke.  In this instance, it would appear, a mild to moderate one.  Perhaps even a series of mild to moderate strokes going back as far as 1590 but certainly until October of 1601.  Like his father, then, having suffered strokes (which, of course, neither they nor their physicians would begin to understand or put a proper name to), and having largely recovered over time, he would have held out hope to recover yet again.  He would merely understand himself to be given to serious periods of illness, after which there were lingering symptoms which his persistence eventually more or less overcame.

There might seem to be a strong argument against stroke, however.  If Edward was suffering left-brain strokes, it seems unlikely that he would have kept the language skills necessary to write his letters much less the portions of the plays Macbeth and The Tempest that I assert, here and in my book Edward de Vere was Shake-speare: at long last the proof, were written between the ascension of James I and De Vere’s death.  He would, then, have to have been left-handed, thus have been suffering right-brain strokes, in order to have the problem he reports writing but not to have lost much or all of his ability to speak and form language for the pen.

It may be noted, however, that De Vere’s portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger shows him holding a boar pendant.  In portraits, sitters far more often hold objects requiring only one hand with their dominant hand.  De Vere is holding the pendant in his left hand: the hand that would need to be affected by a right-side stroke, that is to say, such that he would still be able to write letters and plays, however poor his handwriting, after a mild to moderate stroke.

After these letters, a period of time having passed, Edward did travel to London and observed the entry of England’s new monarch James I.  He failed to navigate the crowds, and, as a result, was forced to watch from his coach at a distance. His request, as Lord Great Chamberlain, to participate in the coronation of the successor to Queen Elizabeth, was soon after granted in full.  It seems quite likely that he fulfilled his considerable responsibilities on that day in person.  These are the only occasions, following the death of Elizabeth I, it is likely that he travel any distance from Hackney.  There are no extant accounts of any other details, on those occasions, relating to him or his health.

Edward de Vere continued to write occasional letters to Cecil and the King, during the brief time left to him, and without further mention of his lame hand.  There is some question outstanding whether all were certain to have been in his own hand.  He died, at his wife’s estate in Hackney, on June 24th, 1604.

As has been mentioned above, there is no sure means of assigning a cause of death.  His quiet interment, absent, it would seem, of all the ceremony generally due an earl, might suggest that he was rumored to have died of the plague.  What an inquest of the time might have made of death by a debilitating disease beyond the capability of a physician to diagnose, it is impossible to say with specificity.  A mysterious death might have been dealt with by assuming the worst.

Another reason for a quick private burial could have been a finding that the Earl of Oxford had despaired of hope in his extremity and ended his own life.  For a high nobleman, this would likely have been hushed up and the body quietly buried in the Christian ground strictly forbidden to such a crime.  Perhaps the most likely reason for the unusual quasi-secrecy of the funeral had nothing to do with a suspected cause of death.  Perhaps it was due to the fact that he had all but bankrupted the earldom and chose to give directions for a private affair in order to avoid one more ignominious display of his reduced estate.

No machinery of plague or suicide is necessary in order to understand De Vere’s somewhat early death.  Actually, the timing is precisely what his male-line family history would promise.  The extant evidence, strongly suggests that he may well have died of an inevitable final, major stroke. 

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, an earl lived a good life daily filled with red meat and rich sauces washed down with equally prodigious amounts of alcohol, followed by lavish desserts.  Edward was renowned for drinking alcohol in prodigious amounts at least until shortly before he retired to Hackney.  A courtier constantly attending at Court, such as Edward was for his first 20 teenage and adult years, would have enjoyed even greater quantities of all of this on a daily basis.

For someone with a genetic disposition to high blood pressure, the lifestyle would all but guarantee a highly vigorous youth of great energy and strength and a death in one’s 40s or 50s, perhaps even earlier.  Of course, similar results might be expected from genetic tendencies toward blot clots, vascular weaknesses in the brain, diabetes and a number of other less likely causes.  On the whole, the record most strongly suggests high blood pressure.


[1] “Letters and Memoranda of Edward de Vere 17th earl of Oxford” @

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid.,