« Names of Our Streets | Volume Three | Ancient Cookery and Cooks »

Secret History of Edward Vere, Earl of Oxford

IT is an odd circumstance in literary research, that I am enabled to correct a story which was written about 1680. The Aubrey papers, recently published with singular faithfulness, retaining all their peculiarities, even to the grossest errors, were memoranda for the use of Anthony Wood’s great work. But beside these, the Oxford antiquary had a very extensive literary correspondence, and it is known, that when speechless and dying, he evinced the fortitude to call in two friends to destroy a vast multitude of papers: about two bushels full were ordered for the fire, lighted for the occasion; and, “as he was expiring he expressed both his knowledge and approbation of what was done, by throwing out his hands.” These two bushels full were not, however, all his papers; his more private ones he had ordered not to be opened for seven years. I suspect, also, that a great number of letters were not burnt on this occasion; for I have discovered a manuscript written about 1720 to 1730, and which, the writer tells us, consists of “Excerpts out of Anthony Wood’s papers.” It is closely written, and contains many curious facts not to be found elsewhere, as far as I have hitherto discovered. These papers of Anthony Wood probably still exist in the Ashmolean Museum: should they have perished, in that case this solitary manuscript will be the sole record of many interesting particulars not known to the public.

By these I correct a little story, which may be found in the Aubrey papers, Vol. III. 395. It is an account of one Nicholas Hill, a man of great learning, and in the high confidence of a remarkable and munificent Earl of Oxford, travelling with him abroad. I transcribe the printed Aubrey account.

“In his travels with his lord (I forget whether Italy or Germany, but I think the former), a poor man begged him to give him a penny. ‘A penny!’ said Mr. Hill. ‘What dost say to ten pounds?’ ‘Ah! ten pounds,’ said the beggar; ‘that would make a man happy.’ N. Hill gave him immediately ten pounds, and putt it downe upon account. Item, to a beggar ten pounds to make him happy!”—The point of this story has been marred in the telling: it was drawn up from the following one, which must have been the original. This extract was made from a letter by Aubrey to A. Wood, dated July 15, 1689. “A poor man asked Mr. Hill, his lordship’s steward, once to give him sixpence, or a shilling, for an alms. ‘What dost say if I give thee ten pounds,’ ‘Ten pounds! that would make a man of me!’; Hill gave it him, and put down in his account, ‘Item, 10l. for making a man,’ which his lordship inquiring about for the oddness of the expression, not only allowed, but was pleased with it.”

This philosophical humorist was the steward of Edward Vere, Earl of Oxford, in the reign of Elizabeth. The peer was a person of elegant accomplishments; and Lord Orford, in his “Noble Authors,” has given a higher character of him than perhaps he may deserve. He was of the highest rank, in great favour with the queen, and, to employ the style of the day, when all our fashions and our poetry were moulding themselves on the Italian model, he was the “Mirrour of Tuscanismo;” and, in a word, this coxcombical peer, after a seven years’ residence in Florence, returned highly “Italianated.” The ludicrous motive of this peregrination is given in the present manuscript account. Haughty of his descent and his alliance, irritable with effeminate delicacy and personal vanity, a little circumstance, almost too minute to be recorded, inflicted such an injury on his pride, that in his mind it required years of absence from the court of England, ere it could be forgotten. Once making a low obeisance to the queen, before the whole court, this stately and inflated peer suffered a mischance, which has happened, it is said, on a like occasion—it was “light as air!” But this accident so sensibly hurt his mawkish delicacy, and so humbled his aristocratic dignity, that he could not raise his eyes on his roval mistress. He resolved from that day to “be a banished man,” and resided for seven years in Italy, living in more grandeur at Florence than the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He spent in those years forty thousand pounds. On his return he presented the queen with embroidered gloves and perfumes, then for the first time introduced into England, as Stowe has noticed. Part of the new presents seem to have some reference to the earl’s former mischance. The queen received them graciously, and was even painted wearing those gloves; but my authority states, that the masculine sense of Elizabeth could not abstain from congratulating the noble coxcomb; perceiving, she said, that at length my lord had forgot the mentioning the little mischance of seven years ago!

The peer’s munificence abroad was indeed the talk of Europe; but the secret motive of this was as wicked as that of his travels had been ridiculous. This earl of Oxford had married the daughter of Lord Burleigh, and when this great statesman would not consent to save the life of the Duke of Norfolk, the friend of this earl, he swore to revenge himself on the countess, out of hatred to his father-in-law. He not only forsook her, but studied every means to waste that great inheritance which had descended to him from his ancestors. Secret history often startles us with unexpected discoveries: the personal affectations of this earl induce him to quit a court, where he stood in the highest favour, to domesticate himself abroad; and a family pique was the motive of that splendid prodigality which, at Florence, could throw into shade the court of Tuscany itself.


Editor’s Notes

Edward de Vere (1550-1604) was the 17th Earl of Oxford.