Home / Articles / Ver-y Interesting: Shakespeare’s Treatment of the Earls of Oxford in the History Plays

Ver-y Interesting: Shakespeare’s Treatment of the Earls of Oxford in the History Plays

by Daniel Wright, PhD

Reprinted by permission of the author from the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Spring 2000


Robert de Vere

Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford (in blue), sits at the left hand of King Richard II.

No scholar of any merit disputes that Shakespeare imaginatively rewrote English history in his chronicle plays. As Judith Anderson has observed, “Shakespeare’s dramas . . . show an explicit . . . self-conscious concern with the natures and varieties of truth in the portrayal of historical persons in art and in chronicle.” Moreover, most readers of Shakespeare agree with such scholars as Peter Saccio, E. M. W. Tillyard and Lily B. Campbell that Shakespeare’s purpose in manipulating and reconfiguring historical accounts was broadly political (1).

For example, in composing The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eighth, Shakespeare dramatically shortens the life of Queen Katherine and sends her off to her eternal reward years before her death actually occurred. This was no careless compositional error. By so sequencing these events, Shakespeare aimed at quietly conferring added legitimacy (2) to Elizabeth’s otherwise contestable claim to the throne by introducing the suggestion that Katherine of Aragon was dead at the time the Princess Elizabeth was born. Of course, we know that Elizabeth was born of Henry VIII’s mistress and second wife while Katherine yet lived-but many in Shakespeare’s audiences in his own day would not know this-and Shakespeare was not about to tell them.

In The Tragedy of Richard the Third, Shakespeare tells us that King Richard, at the fatal battle of Bosworth, encountered no fewer than six doubles of Henry, Earl of Richmond, in the field-of which Shakespeare’s Richard fantastically claims that he has killed five. The claim, of course, is absurd, without any historical support, and contradicts all contemporary reports of the battle; John Julius Norwich, author of Shakespeare’s Kings, declares that the account-an example of broad “dramatic license”-is anchored solely in Shake-speare’s imagination.

So why, if it weren’t true, and supported by no authority of any kind, would Shakespeare invent such a scene? What is the effect of Shakespeare’s singular inclusion of this seemingly incidental fiction in his account? Can anyone doubt that his purpose in doing so is anything other than subtly to confer royal status on Richmond even before Richmond becomes King by right of conquest-assisting, thereby, on the public stage, in the greater legitimization of yet another claimant to the English throne whose legitimacy (and progeny) otherwise might be suspect?

Why does Shakespeare, in The Life and Death of King John, have John, a late twelfth/early thirteenth-century Angevin king, declare himself “supreme head” of the Church-a claim and a title that no English monarch would dare advance until the sixteenth century? Shakespeare has John defiantly address Cardinal Pandulph, the papal envoy, with the bold declaration that “[A]s we, under God, are supreme head, / So under Him that great supremacy, / Where we do reign, we will alone uphold, / Without th’ assistance of a mortal hand: / So tell the pope, all reverence set apart / To him and his usurped authority” (III.i.155-60). Can this passage have been constructed for any other reason than to demonstrate, albeit anachronistically, the fundamentally Protestant character of true, sovereign English monarchy that knows obedience to no foreign power-temporal or spiritual? (3)

This is the public business of Shakespeare in the histories: rewriting already revised history in order to reinforce and consolidate the political claims of the Tudor dynasty and its Reformation heritage-an assertion, however, that must be foregone or somehow explained away if one embraces the now-fashionable but baseless claims of some scholars who assert that Shakespeare was a Catholic émigré to Lancashire where he also was known as “Shakeshafte.”

There are other revisionist features in the Shakespeare histories which orthodox commentators are less able, or altogether unable, to explain. What, for example, are we to make of the way that the earls of Oxford-Edward de Vere’s predecessors-are presented in the histories? Stratfordians cannot possibly account for the curiously selective manner in which the histories of the earls of Oxford are recounted in the Shakespeare histories (nor, for that matter, do any of them even try). After all, what interest-political or dramatic-would Will Shakspere, the Stratford man, have in creatively retouching de Vere family history to tell his epic story of England? None that I can imagine. However, if the writer of the Shakespeare plays were a de Vere himself, the revelation of a peculiarly personal interest in favorably presenting the history of the earls of Oxford might go far toward making some sense of Shakespeare’s otherwise inexplicable determination to illuminate this noble family in a uniformly complimentary light.

Commentators on Shakespeare’s first play of the Lancaster cycle often have expressed wonder at Shakespeare’s choice of moment to begin this play. Why should The Tragedy of King Richard the Second open with the Dukes of Norfolk and Hereford hurling accusations of treason at one another? Wouldn’t it seem more likely that Shakespeare the playwright might have elected to dramatize the colorful events that led to these embittered accusations? Perhaps-and if he was the author of the anonymous and unfinished play, Thomas of Woodstock (sometimes known as “Richard the Second, Part One”), he may have done-and that possibility, in itself, is the subject of a forthcoming paper from me. But whether Shakespeare wrote or contributed to Thomas of Woodstock is not our immediate concern, important as that is to a continuing investigation of the origins of the Shakespeare texts. What interests us for the moment is why the figure of Robert de Vere, the 9th Earl of Oxford, does not figure prominently (or, indeed, at all!) in the account of Richard II’s reign in the indisputably Shakespearean play of Richard the Second, for to read Froissart’s Chronicles, you would think that the proper subject of The Tragedy of King Richard the Second would be not Richard of Bordeaux but Robert de Vere.

Robert de Vere, the 9th Earl of Oxford, I would submit, does not appear in Shakespeare’s account of Richard II’s reign because, singular in prominence as de Vere was in the Ricardian court, the author had no desire to exhibit him before the public or to remind anyone of Robert de Vere’s legacy. If Shakespeare were to have begun his account of Richard’s reign any farther back in time than he does in Richard the Second, he almost surely would have been required to offer at least some glancing look at this multi-titled earl of Oxford. If Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, however, Robert de Vere may have been the last person in the author’s ancient lineage to whom he would have desired any attention be drawn.

By almost all accounts, Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford, was an infamous figure of odious notoriety and vice who dredged the deepest contempt from the souls of leading Englishmen in his own day. He came to his title in 1372 at the age of ten, five years before the inauguration of young King Richard’s reign. At an early age, he became the King’s “bosom friend and favorite”; he was “constantly at the King’s side as his closest friend and confidant.” Verily Anderson suggests that Chaucer-a contemporary of de Vere who would have known him personally-might have described him as an accomplished artist, singer, poet, orator, dancer and writer, but John Julius Norwich dismisses him as but one of many undistinguished Ricardian courtiers, “frivolous, rapacious and empty-headed.”

The 9th Earl of Oxford and Richard II

According to Froissart, the French chronicler, Robert de Vere was an ambitious, self-serving manipulator, even more derelict and disliked than his detested father, the 8th Earl (4) and easily the most hated of all Richard’s companions. Yet young King Richard, out of his great love for de Vere, raised him high: he awarded him many estates and commissions; he gave him military command; he awarded him the chamberlainship of England (5); he granted him the castle and town of Colchester, the castle and wardship of Queensborough, as well as the castle and lordship of Okeham and the hereditary shrievalty of Rutland; among the several offices that Richard conferred upon Robert de Vere were those of Justice of Chester and Justice of North Wales, Constable of England, Marquis of Dublin (6) and Duke of Ireland; he elevated him to the Privy Council and made him a Knight of the Garter. Richard also gave him the right to bear the arms of St. Edmund, King and Martyr. It even was rumored that, so passionate was Richard’s affection for de Vere that he intended to have Oxford crowned King of Ireland.

Few persons, however-especially the King’s powerful uncles-thought de Vere worthy of any of the dignities showered upon him by the King. Froissart reports that among enemies of Robert de Vere it was said, “This Duke of Ireland twists the King round his finger and does what he likes in England”; and he reports it claimed among men that “King Richard . . . was so blinkered by the Duke of Ireland that even if he said black was white the King did not contradict him.” The 9th Earl was derided, reports Froissart, as an instigator of civil disorder, rumored to be an embezzler of funds, and was charged by the King’s enemies as the individual principally responsible for the wars that erupted between the King and his uncles, the Lords Appellant-more responsible, was he, ultimately, for Richard’s decline and fall than Richard himself. He was preoccupied, not with matters of state but with self-indulgence and displays of “ostentatious splendor,” and as Verily Anderson attests, he, like the King, “thought the creation and contemplation of beautiful palaces, furnishings, clothes and food more exciting than war with France.”

Robert de Vere, moreover, according to Froissart, was hated as a wanton who willfully degraded his wife, Philippa-a granddaughter of King Edward III-by his promiscuous adulteries. In addition to the intense resentment of his person that was enkindled by his sexual improprieties among women, Robert de Vere also provoked particular anger and disgust amongst the nobility by what they perceived to be his suspiciously singular “intimacy” with the King. Nigel Saul records that “[s]o close did the association between the two become that in circles hostile to them it gave rise to allegations of homosexuality,” and Thomas Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana is but one among many chronicle accounts of the era that accuse Robert and Richard of “obscene familiarity” with one another.

Neither was this earl of Oxford highly regarded for any martial skill, noble achievements or intellectual prowess. John Julius Norwich chastises de Vere as an effete, corrupt Ricardian courtier who “taught the king effeminate habits, discouraging him from hunting, hawking and other manly sports . . . .” John Gardner, in his acclaimed study of the times and personages of Chaucerian England, also derogates Robert de Vere and indicts him as “fatuous”-“a stupid fop whom Richard advanced and coddled as Edward II had advanced and coddled Gaveston.” Eventually, as we know, de Vere was driven into exile on the Continent, attainted, and died ignominiously (he was gored to death by a wild pig), although his body later was brought back from France for re-burial with regal honors at Earl’s Colne. At the funeral, we are told that King Richard, hysterical with grief, forced open the coffin, wept over the body and played with de Vere’s jeweled fingers.

In sum, the judgement of history on the 9th Earl of Oxford is not especially one of unqualified admiration, although almost every historian or commentator on the period acknowledges that he was a depraved and wicked man of unparalleled import in England, Richard’s “evil genius,” of all Richard’s counsellors “easily the worst of the lot,” nothing less than the real power behind the throne (7). And yet Shakespeare makes no mention of him at all.

Even in Thomas of Woodstock, a play that incorporates the lifetime of the 9th Earl of Oxford, Robert de Vere makes no appearance at all, and in the only utterance of his name, we learn from the lips of his widow that he is dead (II.iii.10-13). The author of this play, moreover-in what I would suggest is an otherwise unaccountable move unless he were the 17th Earl of Oxford (or someone else inexplicably determined that Robert de Vere neither be seen, heard nor indicted in this play!)-transports Sir Robert Tresilian forward in time to become, along with a coterie of other useless fops, the principal agents of the King’s corruption during the era when not they, but de Vere, was the King’s undisputed favorite. In fact, in Thomas of Woodstock, Tresilian is made the plotter against Woodstock’s life (a good trick, that, since Tresilian died nine years before Woodstock was killed)-and in Shakespeare’s Richard the Second, it is implied that Woodstock’s murderer is the Duke of Norfolk (8)-although according to the fourteenth-century Chronicon Anglie, Woodstock professed antipathy to no one in the realm except Robert de Vere, and Norfolk, though demonized in Richard the Second, is not accorded by the chroniclers with anything like the perfidy laid on him by Shakespeare (9).

Moreover, for our consideration of the origins of the text of Thomas of Woodstock as an adjunct or predecessor work to Richard the Second, we are well reminded that Sir John Bushy, Sir Edward Bagot and Sir Henry Greene, the light-footed minions of the King and the “caterpillars of the commonwealth” in Shakespeare’s Richard the Second (II.iii.166), were not leading courtiers of the 1380s; the leading courtier of the 1380s, undisputed by all historical accounts, was Robert de Vere. As both Nigel Saul and A. P. Rossiter point out, Bushy, Bagot and Greene came into the King’s service much later-after the Duke of Gloucester’s death.

Yet the author of Thomas of Woodstock reverses history and features “Bagot, Bushy, [and] wanton Greene” (III.ii.41) at the core of tumultuous events in the early years in Richard’s reign! In Act One of Woodstock, the author even identifies Greene as Chancellor of England and Bagot as Privy Seal-titles that, at this time, belonged to Robert de Vere and Michael de la Pole! Even de la Pole makes it into Thomas of Woodstock (albeit under the name of Lapoole, Captain of Calais, which de la Pole was, in fact, for some time, but not at the time of Gloucester’s murder). Only Robert de Vere, among all the villains-the most prominent and powerful man in England-is nowhere to be seen.

The next generations of Oxfords

Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford, died childless and so was succeeded by his fifty-two-year-old uncle, Aubrey de Vere, for whom Richard was able to lift some of the consequences of the attainder that had been attached to Aubrey’s nephew and heirs by the Merciless Parliament. Shortly thereafter, however, Richard was overthrown and imprisoned as a consequence of his cousin’s cunning coup d’etat, and the 10th Earl of Oxford was punished by the Crown for offering refuge to the deposed King’s half brother, the Earl of Huntington, when Huntington unsuccessfully attempted to restore his sibling to the throne. Richard was murdered in prison the following year, perhaps as a direct result of the fears of his possible restoration that had been incited by the actions against Henry IV which the 10th Earl of Oxford had supported. Aubrey de Vere also died soon thereafter, a man in royal disfavor, attainted and in official disgrace, marked as a collaborator with rebels against the Crown. Shakespeare makes no mention of him either.

Upon the death of Aubrey de Vere, the earldom of Oxford passed to Richard, Aubrey’s teenage son, who, during much of his youth, had been playmate and companion to the new Lancastrian King’s son and heir, Prince Hal. The two boys were almost the same age: Richard had been born in 1385, Hal, the future Henry V, in 1387. This 11th Earl didn’t live long after he assumed the title, however; he died at the age of thirty-two. Not much is known about him, and he and the twelfth earl are the only earls of Oxford who lived during the years that comprise Shakespeare’s two tetralogies of English history not to be referenced with even modest entries in the Dictionary of National Biography.

A French chronicler tells us that the 11th Earl of Oxford became a rearguard commander under Henry V during the march from Harfleur, but he is contradicted by the English chronicler, William Hall, who contends that Oxford actually was in the middleguard. The French chronicler also reports that Oxford, during the Battle of Agincourt, was a commander in the center and took a French soldier prisoner (We cannot place much confidence in this anonymous account, however, as this same chronicler also reports that, shortly thereafter, Oxford was killed in the battle-an error of enormous magnitude and an assertion that, had it been true, certainly would have made its way into the other chronicles, as well as Shakespeare’s play of Henry the Fifth if only because the loss of English nobility at the siege at Agincourt was so astonishingly light).

Oxford, therefore, given his lack of achievement, may not especially have distinguished himself with Henry in France, but, contrary to the French chronicler’s account,10 he certainly did not die there! Instead, Oxford sailed back to England after Agincourt, briefly returned to France to participate in a renewed siege of Harfleur, and thereafter sailed once more home to England where he lived an unremarkable life of apparent quiet for some few weeks or months; he died of what we know not of in 1417, although Verily Anderson plausibly speculates that he may have perished of wounds and exhaustion from the French wars. Of his end, therefore, we know little less than of his life; others, who may have known more-if there was more of note to know-have not told us much, and, if they did, those records have not survived. “The rest is silence.” Shakespeare, like so many other chroniclers, also tells us nothing of this short-lived and unremarkable Earl.

Supporting the Lancastrian Cause

Young Richard de Vere left a child, John, as his heir, much as Richard de Vere’s boyhood friend, Henry V, some five years thereafter, would leave an infant son to succeed him on the occasion of his death at the age of thirty-five-a death that would bring to an end one of the more triumphant, if brief, reigns of any English monarch (Indeed, the reign of Henry V was the shortest reign any King of England had enjoyed since the arrival of William of Conqueror).

Richard’s son, John de Vere, the 12th Earl of Oxford, became, like so many de Veres before and after him, a dedicated Lancastrian. The King entrusted him with many commissions, and he served Henry VI honorably and well, especially as an emissary for peace in France. In the many years of Henry’s reign (Henry reigned for over thirty years with no serious threat to his monarchy being launched by the Yorkists, although abundant challenges to his rule came from other directions),11 kind and well-liked John de Vere12 proved himself a friend to the King.

Henry VI, though a good man, was naïve as a king, a man better fitted by nature for a prie-dieu than a throne; indeed, not entirely out of political motive, Henry VII repeatedly appealed to Rome for his canonization in the sixteenth century. Representative of this conviction that Henry VI was shrewd and politically astute in inverted proportion to his sanctity, Geoffrey Bullough points out that it was “the pious King’s belief that his virtues must inspire loyalty.” In good men like John de Vere, they did indeed do so, but naked ambition governed more men’s hearts. Spurred by the sense of advantage encouraged by the King’s weakness as a leader, the Lancastrian cause was put to its severest test in the mid-1550s by a series of Yorkist assaults on the King’s authority, and Henry VI’s forces, despite heroic resistance, finally were vanquished at the bloody battle of Towton in 1461.

Following the defeat of his army, Henry VI and several of his retinue escaped to the north, but this gentle and unassuming King eventually was captured by men loyal to England’s harsh new Yorkist sovereign, Edward IV. Knowledge of the suffering that his kingdom was enduring in the contest for the throne may even have driven Henry mad; when the deposed king was seized, he was discovered wandering, dazed and alone in a forest. Philipa Haigh reports that one chronicle of the day reported that Henry, after enjoying a brief return to the throne in 1471 (from which he was soon again toppled), died disconsolate, from “pure displeasure and melancholy,” but there is little reason to believe this sentimental account-one doubtless of Yorkist invention-despite our awareness of the King’s sensitivity to distress. Of course, Shakespeare imputes to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the murders of both the Henry VI and his son, the Prince of Wales (Richard III, I.i.154; I.ii.101), but there is abundant reason to doubt the veracity of that account too. In many respects, the particulars of Henry’s end are not all that crucial; however Henry VI perished, the consequences of his death and that of his son plunged England into renewed turmoil and drove the Lancastrian cause almost to despair.

The defeat of Henry VI in 1461 had particularly terrible implications for the 12th Earl of Oxford who “never at any point failed to support the Lancastrian King.” The old man did not possess the hardy youth that would have made his loyalty to the King demonstrable on the field of battle, and when he and his eldest son, Aubrey, were arrested shortly after Edward IV seized power, he was subjected to the most horrible indignities by the new King. According to the French chronicler, Jean de Waurin, the old earl was transported to Tower Hill, where, before a large crowd, he was stripped naked, tied to a great chair in front of a roaring fire and had his intestines wound out of his body and burnt; he then was castrated and thrown into the fire himself. Historian Desmond Seward suggests, however, that this grisly death was closer to the fate actually suffered by the earl’s young son, Aubrey de Vere, and argues that, unlike his son, Earl John was beheaded, and therefore more quickly dispatched, a point with which Verily Anderson also agrees.

The Valiant 13th Earl

In tribute to this terrible sacrifice of their lives, Shakespeare confers on this saintly Earl of Oxford and his son the immortality of his verse. Therefore, just as Shakespeare erased from history all mention of one of the most notorious earls of Oxford, Robert de Vere, so in John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford, he elevates a little-known but kindly man of high public spirit to an honored place in the pantheon of Lancastrian heroes. John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford, may not have contributed the tiniest fraction of notoriety to English history compared with the legacy of his loathsome ancestor, but for his travails in service to King Henry VI, Shakespeare remembers him in the words of his son, the valiant 13th Earl of Oxford (3 Henry VI, III.iii.101-07).

In the third scene of the third act of the third part of Henry the Sixth, Shakespeare, in the very first words he ever wrote about an earl of Oxford, attributes to the 13th Earl a passionate speech of pure Lancastrian patriotism in which Oxford catalogues the worthiness of the Lancastrian line before him and denounces Warwick’s wicked suggestion that Prince Edward, King Henry’s son, has no claim to the throne “[b]ecause [his] father Henry did usurp,” (3 Henry VI III.iii.79).

When the Earl of Oxford speaks for the first time in Shakespeare, he thunders a Lancastrian rebuke that attests to the earls of Oxfords’ ferocious loyalty to the Lancastrian holders-and predecessors of the Tudors-of the Crown: “Then Warwick disannuls great John of Gaunt” [and we all recall from Richard the Second how graciously Shakespeare depicts John of Gaunt, who, in historical fact, was chiefly great as a graceless rogue!] . . . “And after John of Gaunt, Henry the Fourth, / Whose wisdom was a mirror to the wisest; / And after that wise prince, Henry the Fift, / Who by his prowess conquered all France: / From these our Henry lineally descends” (III.iii. 81-87).

Warwick then praises Oxford’s “smooth discourse” and urges Oxford to renounce his fealty to Henry and support Edward for, in Warwick’s [or, more correctly, the author’s] words noble “Oxford . . . did ever [E.ver?] fence the right” (III.iii.98). Recalling the ignominious deaths of his father and brother, however, Oxford/Shakespeare hurls his defiance of Edward IV at Warwick: “Call him my king by whose injurious doom / My elder brother, the Lord Aubrey Vere, / Was done to death? and more than so, my father, / Even in the downfall of his mellow’d years, / When nature brought him to the door of death? / No, Warwick, no; while life upholds this arm, / This arm upholds the house of Lancaster” (III.iii.101-07).

Upon the deaths of his noble father and brother the 12th Earl’s second son, John de Vere, succeeded to the earldom of Oxford after persuading the King and Parliament to reverse the attainder against his family’s title (13). He was thirty-three years old. He was for a short time imprisoned in the Tower on suspicion of treason in 1468, but was released in the spring of 1469; however, he seems to have given evidence during his incarceration that led to the execution of at least two fellow Lancastrians, and perhaps it was the 13th Earl’s provision of this testimony that saved his life. Needless to say perhaps, this lapse of virtue does not appear in Shakespeare’s account of the 13th Earl, but his subsequent activity on behalf of Henry VI’s restoration to the Crown does.

Upon the occasion of the readeption of Henry VI, Warwick in Shakespere praises John de Vere as “brave Oxford, wondrous well belov’d” (3 Henry VI, IV.viii.17), and calls him “valiant Oxford” (V.i.1). Oxford’s first words, in line 29 of the same scene, as he kisses King Henry’s hand are (in an obvious pun on the family motto, Vero Nihil Verius [“No truth but truth itself “]): “… thus I seal my truth, and bid adieu.” Historian Desmond Seward expresses the full import of the scene: “Henry VI was in no doubt as to whom he owed his restoration. He was grateful not only to Warwick and Clarence but also to Lord Oxford. A royal warrant stated that his return to the throne was ‘by the favor and true acquittal of our right entirely and well beloved cousins, duke of Clarence, earles of Warwick and Oxenford'” (14).

See where Oxford Comes!

The Lancastrian Readeption was the work of a trinity of Lancastrian loyalists, and Shakespeare does not let us at any time forget who any of the persons of that sacred triune alliance were. When Warwick is about to die in Coventry at the hands of King Edward and the Duke of Gloucester in scene one of the fifth act, who arrives in the nick of time to save him? “O cheerful colors!” Warwick cries, “see where Oxford comes!” (l. 58). Oxford thunders into the city-with drum and colors, Shakespeare tells us-crying out, “Oxford, Oxford, for Lancaster!” (l. 59). “O, welcome, Oxford, for we want thy help,” rescued Warwick sighs (l. 66). With this change of circumstances, Edward flees to London where he takes King Henry prisoner and prepares for battle with the Lancastrian resurgents at Barnet, just north of London.

Shakespeare’s narration of the Battle of Barnet merits particular attention. The fateful Battle of Barnet ended in Lancastrian defeat and paved the way for Edward IV’s return to the throne. In Shakespeare’s depiction of this event-which comprises the whole of scenes two and three of the fifth act of The Third Part of Henry the Sixth-almost all of the attention is, however, given over to Warwick’s death rather than details of the battle (15).

Small wonder, perhaps, for despite their advantage in numbers, the Lancastrian assault on the Yorkist forces failed for one reason, and one reason alone: Lord Oxford, confused by the fog and shifting battle lines that made it difficult to survey the field, accidentally attacked and completely routed his own allied forces. “[T]he battle soon swung round like a rugby scrum, pivoting at right angles,” Seward reports, and Oxford’s succcess in the field came against his own Lancastrian allies, the Earl of Warwick’s men. Oxford, upon learning the day was lost, fled the field-first to Scotland and from there to France, “aban-don[ing] his own men.” But is this what Shakespeare reports? Not at all. Upon Warwick’s death, Shakespeare instead has Oxford cry out to his troops, “Away, away, to meet the Queen’s great power!” (3 Henry VI, V.ii.50).

Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III) affirms that the Queen and her forces are Oxford’s destination: “The Queen is valued thirty thousand strong, / And Somerset, with Oxford, fled to her,” Shakespeare has him say (V.iii.14-15). However, the Queen and her retinue actually were launching their own assault by sea off the coast of Dorset! If Oxford was planning to reach Margaret in Dorset by way of Scotland, he was bent on traversing the world over the poles to get there!

This suggestion by Shakespeare that the 13th Earl was attempting to link up with the Queen’s forces to renew an assault on the Yorkists is a total fabrication. But it is essential for Shakespeare to propose it if he is to expunge Oxford of his guilt at Towton and then have his way in describing Oxford’s heroism at the next, and for a time, decisive battle in the great English civil wars-the Battle of Tewkesbury.

Scene four of the fifth act of The Third Part of Henry the Sixth opens on the plains near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire some three weeks following the Battle of Barnet. There Queen Margaret rallies her troops, commanded by Prince Edward, the young Prince of Wales, and leading Lancastrian noblemen of the realm. In words anticipatory of the enlivening succor that will be offered to the defeated King by the Bishop of Carlisle in Richard the Second, the Queen addresses her commanders: “Great lords, wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss / But cheerily seek how to redress their harms” (3 Henry VI, V.iv.1-2). She invites her army to take heart, despite the recent loss of their dread commander, the Earl of Warwick, at Barnet. “Say Warwick was our anchor; what of that?” she cries. “Why, is not Oxford here another anchor?” (ll.13,16) Shakespeare’s Oxford then cheers the courage of the Queen and praises the bravery of the prince (ll. 50-54); Margaret thanks “sweet Oxford” (l. 58), and Oxford determines the spot at Tewkesbury where Edward and his Yorkist armies will be engaged (l. 66).

All of this commands a hopeful view of the resurgent Lancastrian chances against Edward IV’s renewed efforts to thrust King Henry from the throne. The only major problem with its depiction of the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and the whole Lancastrian company taking high courage from the presence and resolve of the Earl of Oxford is that it’s not in any point true, because-right-Oxford wasn’t even there! (16)

Shakespeare, however, is not content merely to have the 13th Earl of Oxford present at Tewkesbury rather than fleeing toward safety in Scotland; naturally, he must excel in his performance as a warrior. And, of course, Shakespeare’s fictional Oxford does so. We are told by Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Richard the Third, for example, that not only did Oxford fight against the Yorkist powers at Tewkesbury but that he personally subdued King Edward IV at Tewkesbury, and, had it not been for the intervention of the King’s brother, single-handedly would have rescued England from the tyranny of Richard of Gloucester-the future Richard III (17).

Shakespeare later has King Edward penitentially declare, upon learning of his brother Clarence’s death:

Have I a tongue to doom my brother’s death,
And shall that tongue give pardon to a slave?
My brother kill’d no man, his fault was thought,
And yet his punishment was bitter death.
Who sued to me for him? Who (in my wrath)
Kneel’d [at] my feet and bid me be advis’d?
Who spoke of brotherhood? Who spoke of love?
Who told me how the poor soul did forsake
The mighty Warwick and did fight for me?
Who told me, on the field at Tewkesbury,
When Oxford had me down, he rescued me,
And said, “Dear brother, live, and be a king”?
(Richard III, II.i.103-114)

Many years afterwards, as we know, the Lancastrian forces-their hopes vested in young Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond-will make another assault on a Yorkist king (Richard III)-a definitive one this time-and end forever the Wars of the Roses. When they do so, at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, they will be led, as the chroniclers tells us, by the 13th Earl of Oxford (18). And of course, Shakespeare affords us the glory of Oxford’s presence and his words as the Battle of Bosworth unfolds (after all, if Shakespeare is going to have an earl of Oxford a hero in fiction, why not also a hero in fact?). In early lines in the fifth scene of Act Four in The Tragedy of Richard the Third, Sir Christopher Urswick introduces us to the “men of name” who are allied in Richmond’s cause, and they include, of course, John de Vere, the 13th Earl of Oxford. On the eve of the battle, Henry Tudor bids Oxford stay with him for conference (V.iii.27-28).

On the following morn, preparations for the final struggle to secure England’s Crown begins. In contrast to Richard the Third’s battle cry to his forces, “Conscience is but a word that cowards use / Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe: / Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law! / March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell; if not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell” (Richard III, V.iii.309-13), Oxford calls upon his soldiers with the words, “Every man’s conscience is a thousand men, / To fight against this guilty homicide” (V.ii.17-18).

In saying so, he also echoes the summons to holy war in Henry Tudor’s proclamation that he opens by inviting his men to compare the cause for which they fight with the character of the beast upon whom they soon are to do battle:

For what is he they follow? Truly, gentle men,
A bloody tyrant and a homicide;
One rais’d in blood, and one in blood estab- lished;
One that made means to come by what he hath,
And slaughtered those that were his means to help him;
A base foul stone, made precious by the foil
Of England’s chair, on which he is falsely set;
One that hath ever been God’s enemy. (V.iii.245-52)

The fury of war erupts shortly thereafter; Richard is slain, fighting on his feet, and Henry Tudor is exalted, for, with his triumph and the promise of his posterity, peace in
England, with God’s will, is assured (V.v.19-41).

Is all of this coincidence, I ask you? Did Shakespeare, in his reconstruction of English civil conflict in his history plays, grind no political agenda? Did he “just happen” to confer an unblemished history on every generation of earls of Oxford encompassed by the history plays? Did the shame that he failed to spare others “just happen” to escape settling on generation after generation of earls of Oxford? I don’t think so, and I doubt that anyone who examines the evidence can doubt it either.

Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, writes,

Unless [an] author contents himself with simply retelling The Three Bears or the story of Oedipus in the precise form in which they exist in popular accounts . . . his very choice of what he tells will betray him to the reader. He chooses to tell the tale of Odysseus rather than that of Circe and Polyphemus. He chooses to tell the cheerful tale of Monna and Federigo rather than the pathetic account of Monna’s husband and son . . . . In short, the author’s judgement is always present, always evident to anyone who knows how to look for it . . . . We must never forget that though the author can to some extent choose his diguises, he can never choose to disappear.

Well said! I wonder, therefore, in whom Will, the Stratford man, if he were the writer of these works, disguised himself in these plays, and where it may be that, since “he can never choose to disappear,” we are supposed to find him. Why did he choose to tell the stories he did in these plays in the way that he did? Why did he represent all of the earls of Oxford as he did? No wonder scholars, in frustration, have abandoned the search for Stratford Will behind Shakespeare’s works. Will, the glover’s son from Stratford, is not there. But if Will isn’t there, who is? Anyone want to make an intelligent guess?


1) As Lily B. Campbell instructs us, “Shakespeare, like all other writers who used history to teach politics to the present, cut his cloth to fit the pattern, and the approach to the study of his purposes . . . in his altering [of] the historical fact is best made with current political situations in mind.”

2) Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, had declared the King’s marriage to Queen Katherine null and void in May of 1533, shortly after the King and his mistress, Anne Boleyn, married in a private ceremony, but absent a papal dispensation, strict Latin Rite Christians refused to recognise Cranmer’s nullification of the bond between Henry and Katherine and denied the legitimacy of the new marriage (and its issue) while the King’s first wife lived.

3) This play, along with The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eighth (which Geoffrey Bullough classifies as “a play of Protestant propaganda”), is indisputably one of the two most uncompromising and self-evident apologias for the Reformation among the Shakespeare histories, or indeed, the canon as a whole.

4) The 8th Earl-Thomas de Vere-apparently was roundly disliked as well. Froissart declares it was said of the 8th Earl of Oxford that he “never had much of a reputation . . . for honour, wisdom, sound judgement or chivalry.”

5) The hereditary title of Lord Great Chamberlain was not yet in use at the end of the fourteenth century, although until that title was formally devised and conferred successively upon several earls of Oxford, the chamberlainship of England was urged by all the earls of Oxford as their hereditary right dating from the reign of Henry I. This they felt obligated to insist, inasmuch as the office occasionally was awarded to someone else; Richard II, for example, following the exile of Robert de Vere, conferred the office on his own half-brother (who eventually was created Earl of Huntington and, later, Duke of Exeter).

6) Richard II’s creation of Robert de Vere as Marquis of Dublin was the first conferral of a marquessate in England.

7) How effective Oxford was as this power behind Richard’s throne is a matter of some debate. John Gardner contends that Oxford “was too inept to be really dangerous, even though he was undeniably difficult, forever plotting the murder of one great magnate or another”-including John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, although Shakespeare (perhaps not unsur-prisingly) tells us that the counsellor who laid this plot against the life of John of Gaunt was Norfolk!-not Oxford (I.i.135-37). That the Lords Appellant considered de Vere to be a traitor of the first order who had attempted to usurp the prestige and power of the King, even in battle, cannot be denied; the articles of treason leveled against Oxford by the Merciless Parliament of 1388 are extraordinarily detailed; they even included the charge that Oxford appropriated the King’s personal banner for his own use.

8) Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham and later Duke of Norfolk, was second only to Oxford in King Richard’s affections. Richard, for example, allowed to Oxford and Mowbray, and to no others among his minions, their own chambers, complete with bathhouse, at Langley Palace. If the writer who was Shakespeare, for whatever reason, was interested in attributing the guilt of Robert de Vere to someone else, he could hardly have chosen a more apt and ready scapegoat than Thomas Mowbray.

9) And yet, it must be noted that when Gloucester was murdered, Mowbray could hardly have been ignorant of the event, as it was one of Mowbray’s former valets (a certain John Hall) who actually confessed to the killing of Gloucester in Calais-on orders from the King, as Hall claimed. But who can believe that Richard would have imparted such an intention as this-the assassination of his principal adversary-to a mere valet, when Mowbray, at the time of the Duke of Gloucester’s murder, was Governor of Calais as well as captain of the castle where Gloucester was imprisoned?

10) The French chronicler cited by Verily Anderson is unknown. According to Verily Anderson, in a letter of 3 April 2000, “[t]he chronicler referred to was an un-named contributor to a 19th century Dictionaire Encyclopedoque, undated, probably published by Larousse, which I came across in a small library [in the Fondation Camargo] in Cassis, France … I included it … as an example of the all-too-frequent inaccuracies in popular French encyclopaedias.”

11) Norwich, in fact, refers to Henry’s forty-nine year reign as “perhaps the saddest half-century in English history.”

12) The letters of a respected Norfolk family, the Pastons, attest to the worthy reputation of John de Vere among the people of East Anglia who regarded the earl as a benefactor and supporter of their interests. Moreover, as Verily Anderson reports, “Shakespeare dramatized many of the high spots of history which also appear in detail in the Paston letters, written a century before his plays.”

13) Seward, however, proposes that such an effort was never made, as John de Vere’s father had only been sentenced to death by the Constable’s Court-not attainted; as a consequence, no plea for restoration of the earldom of Oxford was needed.

14) Source material for Shakespeare, such as Holinshed’s Chronicles and the anonymous Mirror for Magistrates, vary in their spellings of Oxford. The author of Mirror for Magistrates identifies Oxford as “Oxford”; Holinshed sometimes refers to Oxford as “Oxford” but also as “Oxenford.” (Such variations of spelling among places and persons are common in these accounts, as usage and spelling were flexible at the time.) Hall’s history, for example, refers to Hereford, bisyllabically as “Herfforde” and trisyllabically as “Herefford” and, in the same way, identifies Richmond as both “Richmond” and “Rychemonde” [among other variations]; among other irregularities, Holinshed also refers to Norfolk both as “Northfolke” and “Norfolke” and to Exeter as “Excester”). I suspect that the author of Shakespeare’s works preferred to use “Oxford” (as opposed to the Middle English “Oxenford”) when referencing the town and its liege lord, principally because it scans better-a judgment confirmed, I believe, by the editors of the Shakespeare’s works.

15) As John Julius Norwich recounts Shakespeare’s curiously precipitate treatment of this all-important engagement,

The story of Barnet is quickly told. We hear nothing of the fighting, nor the fog that shrouded the field and was as much a feature of the battle as the cold had been at Towton, almost exactly ten years before [emphasis mine]. . . . A brief scene iii establishes that victory [for the Yorkists] has been won, announces the landing of Margaret and her son and prepares us for Tewkesbury (emphasis mine).

16) Contrary to Shakespeare’s assertion that Oxford, having lost the Battle of Barnet, sped to the Queen’s rescue in Dorset in order to join her forces in a renewed assault on Edward, we know, instead, from Edward Hall and others, that Oxford fled north to Scotland and escaped from there to France. So Hall, for example, records in his Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of York and Lancaster that “the duke of Somerset, with John Erle of Oxenford, wer all in poste hast, flying towarde Scotland”-although Hall suggests that Oxford, at least for awhile, may have turned with Somerset, Pembroke and Exeter toward Wales (“feryng the jeoperdies, that might chaunce in so long a jorney, [they] altered their purpose, and turned into Wales . . . [later] every man fled whether his mynde served him”). Oxford, as he was in Scotland at the time, does not of course appear in Hall’s subsequent account of the Battle of Tewkesbury, at which the defeat of the Lancastrians placed the Yorkists firmly on the throne for more than another decade.

17) Shakespeare’s view of Richard III is highly suspect, for reasons far too extensive to survey here. Suffice it to say that Richard the Third, in Shakespeare-with consummate artistry but against all reason and evidence, is made into one of the most memorable fiends and villains of all time. For more on the controversy regarding the character and reign of Richard III, begin by reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. (New York: Scribner, 1995); Roxane C. Murphy’s Richard III: The Making of a Legend (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1977); V. B. Lamb’s The Betrayal of Richard III (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1959); William Snyder’s edition of Caroline Halsted’s 1844 biography of Richard III [Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and King of England]: The Crown and the Tower (Seacliff, NY: The Richard III Society, 1981); Audrey Williamson’s The Mystery of the Princes (Brunswick Road: Sutton, 1978); and To Prove a Villain: The Case of Richard III, a collection of pertinent documents (co-edited by former colleagues of mine at Auburn University, Taylor Littleton and Robert R. Rea [New York: Macmillan, 1964]).

18) The assumption that Oxford commanded a large body of men at Bosworth is challenged by S. B. Chrimes who writes that “Henry arrayed his forces so as to provide a slender vanguard, with a small number of archers in front, under the command of John de Vere, earl of Oxford, with a right wing under Gilbert Talbot and a left wing under John Savage.”

Works Cited

Anderson, Judith H. Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing. New Haven: Yale, 1984.
Anderson, Verily. The de Veres of Castle Hedingham. Lavenham, Suffolk: Terence Dalton, 1993.-. Letter to the author. 3 April 2000.
Bennett, Michael. Richard II and the Revolution of 1399. Frome, Somerset: Sutton, 1999.
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961.
Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. “Introduction [to 3 Henry VI].” Volume 3. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1960. 8 volumes. 157-71.
“Introduction [to Henry VIII],” Volume 4. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1962. 8 volumes. 435-51.
Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1947. Chrimes, S. B. Henry VII. New Haven: Yale, 1972.
Chronicon Anglie 1328-1388. Ed. E. M. Thompson. London: Rolls Series, 1874.
Froissart, Jean. Chronicles. Trans. and Ed. Geoffrey Brereton. London: Penguin, 1968.

Gardner, John. The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Greg, W. W. Introduction to The First Part of King Richard the Second or Thomas of Woodstock. Oxford: John Johnson, 1929. v-xxxv.
Haigh, Philipa. The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses. Conschohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1995.
Hall, Edward. from The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of York and Lancaster. Ed. Geoffrey Bullough. Volume 3. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1960. 8 volumes. 172-208.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1991.
Kendall, Paul Murray. The Yorkist Age: Daily Life During the Wars of the Roses. New York: Norton, 1962.
Mathew, Gervase. The Court of Richard II. New York: Norton, 1968.
Norwich, John Julius. Shakespeare’s Kings. London: Viking, 1999.
Rossiter, A. P. Preface to Thomas of Woodstock. London: Chatto and Windus, 1946. 1-76.
Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.
Saul, Nigel. Richard II. New Haven: Yale, 1997.
Seward, Desmond. The Wars of the Roses Through the Lives of Five Men and Women of the Fifteenth Century. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare’s History Plays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1944.
Walsingham, Thomas. Historica Anglicana. Volume 2. Ed. Henry Thomas Riley. London: Rolls Series, 1863-64. 2 volumes.


Stay Informed
Join our FREE Email list to get the latest news on the Shakespeare authorship controversy
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.