Reason No. 34 to Believe the Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”: Fisher’s Folly and “The Cornwallis Book”

In 1580, when Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford was thirty years old, he bought a mansion in Bishopsgate even though he was virtually broke and already owned Vere House by London Stone, where he lived.  The extravagant second house, nicknamed Fisher’s Folly after its builder Jasper Fisher fell into debt because of its too-costly construction, is significant for at least these reasons:

As Charles Wisner Barrell suggested in 1945, it appears that Oxford acquired the mansion “as headquarters for the school of poets and dramatists who openly acknowledged his patronage and leadership.” 

It was Thomas Nashe who wrote in Strange News (1592): “I lurk in no corners but converse in a house of credit, as well governed as any college, where there be more rare qualified men and selected good Scholars than in any Nobleman’s house that I know in England.”

A Caricature of Thomas Nashe (1567-1601)

(It makes sense, I’d say, that “Shakespeare” would not have developed in a vacuum.  If we weren’t trapped in the much smaller world of traditional thinking, we’d very likely predict that the Bard would have had an ongoing “college” in a building with many rooms for writers — just as the great painter Raphael eventually had a workshop of fifty pupils and assistants, many of whom later became significant artists in their own right.)

Edward de Vere owned the Folly all through the wartime years of the 1580’s, as England prepared for the Spanish invasion – a time when many “history” plays (including several with the same plots and scenes as “Shakespeare’s” stage histories appearing in the next decade); and he sold it just months after the victory over King Philip’s armada in the summer of 1588.

This same period saw the great renaissance of English literature and drama by the so-called University Wits working under Oxford’s patronage and guidance – not only Nashe but also John Lyly, Thomas Watson, Robert Greene, Anthony Munday, Thomas Churchyard, Thomas Lodge, etc., leading to the sudden appearance of “Shakespeare” in 1593.

Caricature of Gabriel Harvey (1551-1630) with Nashe

De Vere sold Fisher’s Folly in December 1588 to William Cornwallis, a descendant of the eleventh Earl of Oxford; and in 1852 the scholar J.O. Halliwell-Philipps revealed his discovery of a small book of some thirty pages in the handwriting of Cornwallis’ daughter Anne Cornwallis, who had transcribed the work of various Elizabethan poets including Verses Made by the Earl of Oxford as well as an anonymous poem that would appear in 1599 in The Passionate Pilgrim, a volume of poetry attributed to Shakespeare.

When Anne Cornwallis and her family moved into Fisher’s Folly in early 1589, did she wander through the many rooms of the great mansion and find these verses in some overlooked corner of Oxford’s library?  Or were they tucked away in some desk in a room that one of the University Wits had used?

Halliwell-Phillipps originally estimated that Anne had transcribed the poems no later than 1590 – but since that date was probably too early for Shakspere of Stratford to have written them, he later extended his estimate to 1595.  Barrell countered with reasons why the earlier date is more likely.  He also showed that the poem Anne had transcribed is textually superior to the one printed later by Jaggard.   And it appears that her version is the only handwritten copy of a poem attributed to Shakespeare dating from the sixteenth century.

An Elizabethan oak chest of the kind where Oxford might have stashed a manuscript

Okay, so let’s see – we start with this theory that Oxford may have written the works attributed to Shakespeare … we see that he buys a mansion in London that he uses during 1580-1588 … and a woman who moves into the place in 1589 transcribes some verses made by Oxford and other poets, including lines to appear a decade later under the Shakespeare name!

As noted before in these reasons, this one is of course not “proof” that Oxford was the Bard, but it’s definitely one of the many pieces of circumstantial evidence that he was — and good enough to be Reason No. 34 to think so!

Final Stanza of Poem No. XVIII of Passionate Pilgrim 1599:

But soft, enough – too much, I fear –

Lest that my mistress hear my song;

She will not stick to round me I’ the ear,

To teach my tongue to be so long.

Yet will she blush, here be it said,

To hear her secrets so bewray’d.

Final Stanza of the Anonymous Poem Transcribed in Anne Cornwallis’ Little Book:

Now hoe, enough, too much I fear;

For if my lady hear this song,

She will not stick to ring my ear,

To teach my tongue to be so long;

Yet would she blush, here be it said,

To hear her secrets thus bewray’d.

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