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.,


jdickson said...

Just a couple of points - if De Vere complained about his “lame hand”, perhaps that letter (and many others) were dictated. That would upend a certain strand of evidence - that is, his letters have habits of spelling and form that have been commented on. Perhaps he did not pen them! Maybe they were dicatated. In that case, the spelling wouldn’t be de Vere’s, and is therefore inconsequential.

OR, perhaps he was “exaggerating” in his comment on his “lame hand”.

The last letter (to King James) is quite impressive, and not long ago it hit me how improbable it is that Oxford actually penned it - if one mistake were made, it would have had to be discarded. It seems highly possible that it is the work or partial contribution of a professional scribe. After all, it was to the King, and the knot flourish is PERFECT - quite a feat after penning a complete letter.

But based on earlier examples of Oxford’s hand, it might be provable that he penned the later letters as well.

On the stroke hypothesis - it fits the facts, but I have a growing suspicion that he was poisoned. I don’t have the knowledge of poison techniques to back this up, but it would fit the pattern of “actions” taken by Robert Cecil to settle scores and shore up his administration of James’ fledgling regime.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy said...

But why, Mr. Dickson, would Vere apologize for his handwriting if someone else had written the letter in question? I would love to be able to check each letter personally for consistency of handwriting and spelling but that is not presently possible. Still both seem properly vouched for. There can be little doubt that the "Lame hand" letters were in his own hand, however corrupted/altered by lameness.

jdickson said...

The signature on the last letter (to James) is impressively large and strong. It's worth pointing out that the last signature which exists (on the legal document putting property in trust for his son Henry) is VERY shaky, but he managed to sign.

Perhaps he was experiencing TIAs ("mini stokes) for some time before a having a final major stroke.

It's clear that, as far as he was concerned, SOMETHING was affecting his writing hand.

Oxalis said...

Couldn't arthritis explain a lot? Limping after an injury could encourage it, and it also attacks hands.

I think twelfth earl was beheaded.