Edward de Vere

Some believe it was Elizabethan courtier Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, who really wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.


Born at Hedingham Castle, England on April 12, 1550, Edward de Vere became the 17th earl of Oxford upon his father's death. He was raised as a ward of Queen Elizabeth in the home of Lord Burghley, whose daughter he married. A patron of writers, Oxford kept his own troupe of actors and was known as the "Italian Earl" after his travels. Later embroiled in scandal, he died on June 24, 1604.

Early Life

Edward de Vere was born on April 12, 1550 at his family’s estate in Hedingham, England. His parents were John de Vere, 16th earl of Oxford, and Margery Golding, half-sister of Arthur Golding, known for the first English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

De Vere’s early tutors were the scholar/diplomat Sir Thomas Smith and Laurence Nowell, owner of the only known copy of Beowulf at that time. De Vere went to Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1558, later receiving honorary degrees from both Cambridge and Oxford universities.

Upon his father’s death when de Vere was twelve, his hereditary titles included Lord Great Chamberlain and 17th Earl of Oxford. He rode into London with seven score horses dressed in black and took his place as a ward of Queen Elizabeth’s court, with the youth overseen by Lord Burghley, the queen’s chief advisor.

Controversial Courtier

Oxford eventually married Lord Burghley’s daughter Anne, who had been in marriage negotiations with another courtier poet, Sir Philip Sidney. Oxford became a favorite of the queen’s, although she often ignored his requests for travel and military service. In 1575, he was granted travel to Europe and spent much of his time in Italy, later becoming known at court as the “Italian Earl” for his dress and affectations. Upon his return, he separated from Anne, believing she had been unfaithful.

A flamboyant personality, Oxford was a sought-after patron of the arts, holding the lease to Blackfriars Theatre and having a troupe operate under his name.

Oxford became involved in numerous scandals, including the “tennis court quarrel” with Sidney, and had a romantic affair with Anne Vavasour, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting. The two had a child in 1581, for which both parents were thrown in the Tower. The latter caused Lord Burghley to remark on the resulting “brabbles and frays” in the streets between their two families. By the 1590s, Oxford had fallen from favor, spending much of his time petitioning the queen for income. 

Death and Legacy

Edward de Vere died on June 24, 1604 in the London suburb of Hackney at his estate, known as King’s Place. He was buried at the parish church of St. John, but no tomb remains. He was survived by his second wife Elizabeth Trentham, who sold his estate to Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney’s best friend, in 1609. His eldest daughter Elizabeth, once engaged to the third earl of Southampton, dedicatee of Shakespeare’s narrative poems, married the Earl of Derby, another patron of the theater. De Vere’s youngest daughter married Philip Herbert, Sidney’s nephew and one of the “Incomparable Paire of Brethren” to whom Shakespeare’s First Folio is dedicated. 

The Shakespeare Question

De Vere was cited in Palladis Tamia as “best for comedy,” but none of his plays have survived. The 1732 edition of Desiderata Curiosa includes an advertisement for a “pleasant conceit of Vere, Earl of Oxford, discontented at the rising of a mean gentleman in the English court, circa 1580,” but the manuscript collection went missing. De Vere was largely lost to history until 1920 when J. Thomas Looney claimed the earl was the real Shakespeare; an increasing number of books have been published surrounding this theory.

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