Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

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Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford : biography

12 April 1550 – 24 June 1604

In April the Spanish ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, wrote to King Philip II of Spain that it had been proposed that if Anjou were to travel to England to negotiate his marriage to the Queen, Oxford, Surrey and Windsor should be hostages for his safe return. Anjou himself did not arrive in England until the end of August, but his ambassadors were already in England. Oxford was sympathetic to the proposed marriage, Leicester and his nephew Philip Sidney were adamantly opposed to it. This antagonism may have triggered the famous quarrel between Oxford and Sidney on the tennis court at Whitehall. It is not entirely clear who was playing on the court when the fight erupted; what is undisputed is that Oxford called Sidney a ‘puppy’, while Sidney responded that ‘all the world knows puppies are gotten by dogs, and children by men’. The French ambassadors, whose private galleries overlooked the tennis court, were witness to the display. Whether it was Sidney who next challenged Oxford to a duel or the other way around, Oxford did not take it further, and the Queen personally took Sidney to task for not recognizing the difference between his status and Oxford’s. Christopher Hatton and Sidney’s friend Hubert Languet also tried to dissuade Sidney from pursuing the matter, and it was eventually dropped. The specific cause is not known, but in January 1580 Oxford wrote and challenged Sidney; by the end of the month Oxford was confined to his chambers, and was not released until early February.

Oxford openly quarrelled with the Earl of Leicester about this time; he was confined to his chamber at Greenwich for some time ‘about the libelling between him and my Lord of Leicester’. In the summer of 1580, Gabriel Harvey, apparently motivated by a desire to ingratiate himself with Leicester, satirized Oxford’s love for things Italian in verses entitled Speculum Tuscanismi in Three Proper and Witty Familiar Letters.

Although details are unclear, there is evidence that in 1577 Oxford attempted to leave England to see service in the French Wars of Religion on the side of King Henry III. Like many members of older established aristocratic families in England, Oxford inclined to Catholicism; after his return from Italy he was reported to have embraced the religion, perhaps after being introduced to a seminary priest, Richard Stephens, by a distant kinsman Charles Arundell. But just as quickly, late in 1580 he denounced a group of Catholics, among them Arundell, Francis Southwell and Henry Howard, for treasonous activities and asking the Queen’s mercy for his own, now repudiated, Catholicism. Elizabeth characteristically delayed in acting on the matter and he was detained under house arrest for a short time.

Leicester is credited for having "dislodged Oxford from the pro-French group", i.e., the group at court which favoured Elizabeth’s marriage to the Duke of Anjou. The Spanish ambassador, Mendoza, was also of the view that Leicester was behind Oxford’s informing on his fellow Catholics in an attempt to prevent the French marriage. Peck concurs, stating that Leicester was "intent upon rendering Sussex’s allies politically useless".

The Privy Council ordered the arrest of both Howard and Arundell; Oxford immediately met secretly with Arundell to convince him to support his allegations against Howard and Southwell, offering him money and a pardon from the Queen. Arundell refused Oxford’s offer, and he and Howard initially sought asylum with Mendoza. Only after being assured they would be placed under house arrest in the home of a Privy Council member did the pair gave themselves up. During the first weeks after their arrest they pursued a threefold strategy: they would admit to minor crimes, prove Oxford a liar by his offers of money to testify to his accusations, and demonstrate that their accuser posed the real danger to the Crown. The extensive list to discredit Oxford included atheism, lying, heresy, disobedience to the crown, treason, murder for hire, sexual perversion and pederasty with his English and Italian servants (‘buggering a boy that is his cook and many other boys’), habitual drunkenness, vowing to murder various courtiers and declaring that Elizabeth had a bad singing voice.:’Railing at Francis Southwell for commending the Queen’s singing one night at Hampton Court, and protesting by the blood of God that she had the worst voice and did everything with the worst grace that ever woman did and that he was never nonplussed but when he came to speak of her.’