The Earl of Oxford Disappears on the Continent: “He must be restrained as soon as possible!”

“Suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps, for they shall learn nothing there but pride, blasphemy, and atheism.” – Chief Minister William Cecil Lord Burghley to his son Robert Cecil

William Cecil Lord Burghley (1520-1598)

“But, sir, such wanton, wild and usual slips as are companions noted and most known to youth and liberty … drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling, drabbing” — Chief Minister Polonius in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (with “drabbing” = associating with prostitutes)

Here’s an Elizabethan letter that offers a glimpse into the character of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford as a hot-blooded young man in search of adventure, learning and freedom from his conservative English society, particularly freedom from the puritanical gaze of Lord Burghley, his former guardian and current father-in-law.  The writer, William Lewin, acting as Oxford’s servant but reporting to Burghley, tells how the earl is quickly “taken by a surfeit” of sensual pleasures and “delights [in] his ability to hide.”  It also shows how someone writing to the Queen’s powerful chief minister feels constrained when discussing those sinful doings in Europe, especially on the other side of the Alps in Italy.

Edward de Vere at 25 in 1575

(The letter is translated from Latin into English by Dana F. Sutton of the University of California at Irvine for Nina Green, who has made it available [here] at The Oxford Authorship Site.)

Lewin wrote to the Lord Treasurer from Strasbourg, Germany on July 4, 1575 after Oxford had met with Johannes (Jean) Sturm, 68, the great humanist educator (who favored a “non-dogmatic” Christianity) and supporter of the Protestant Reformation.  Lewin had been directed by Burghley to keep him informed of Oxford’s doings on his Continental tour, which had begun in early February and had already included a successful visit to the French royal court.  Lewin had accompanied his 25-year-old “master” from Paris to Strasbourg, but then Oxford managed to slip away from him and disappear.

Johannes Sturm (1507-1589)

“Lord Burghley apparently engaged in this practice of obtaining information about Oxford through Oxford’s servants for many years,” Nina Green writes, and this letter “indicates that although Lewin was Oxford’s servant, his primary loyalty was to Lord Burghley.”  It seems likely, she adds, that “even if [Oxford] had no proof that Lewin was in correspondence with Lord Burghley, he strongly suspected it, and acted accordingly.”

Lewin reports his opinion that Burghley is more concerned about Oxford’s “security and safety” than the earl himself.  Clearly he’s frantically trying to learn Oxford’s whereabouts and, perhaps more importantly, worrying about the chief minister’s reaction to this bad news.  As we shall see, he even attempts to turn the crisis from a negative situation into a positive one.

“Although I daily wait to discover whether my master has in truth departed for Greece or is still remaining in Italy, no definite news is brought to us,” he tells Burghley.  “I have very diligently entreated Parrett and Cooke [paid informers?] that they would inform me where he is staying, which neither of them has done so far … I am certainly induced to believe that, while traveling to Augsburg [Germany], he has turned aside into Poland, since it was once his plan to visit the Polish court, and then to proceed overland to Constantinople [which had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453; the city is the present-day Istanbul]…

Constantinople - sixteenth century

“I think he has either not tarried long in Italy, lest, should there be any mention of his trip to Constantinople, he be recalled by the Prince [Queen Elizabeth], or, if he is in Italy, he wants his Italian sojourn to be as concealed from all people as possible, either for the same reason, or he delights in this very thing, his ability to hide.  For as soon as he had come to Stasbourg, he adopted the scheme, with the result that at first I could not dare write this to your Lordship…”

Lewin has launched a frantic search.  He has written to one man who “might inform us where my master is, how long he will remain, and when and whither he will depart, if he can discover this from what others are saying as occasion offers.”  He promises Burghley, “When I discover that which I imagine your Lordship desires to know, I shall write as soon as possible, in order to relieve you of your anxiety as best I can …

“I am aware that your Lordship disapproves of a journey to Constantinople, and are even greatly concerned about an Italian sojourn, in both cases very prudently,” Lewin continues before launching into his philosophical solution – the idea that if Oxford indulges in guilty pleasures excessively enough, he will be cured of wanting to indulge in more!

“As much as I can make out from those who have completed a significant part of it,” he writes, “that journey to Greece makes those who had previously been eager to be pilgrims zealous for staying in their homeland.  It makes those who love foreign things love their own, and those who disdain their own to scorn the foreign. This I certainly gather on the basis of our French journey, and suspect it on that of our German one,” he assures Burghley — telling him what he wants to hear, true or not.

[Telling Burghely what he wants to hear may be why Oxford himself will write to him a few months later, from Venice: “For my liking of Italy, my Lord, I am glad I have seen it, and I care not ever to see it any more, unless it be to serve my prince or country” — plainly, in light of much other information, not at all what he really feels.]

The Theater of Dionysus in Athens, on the south side of the Acropolis, where plays of Sophocles, Euripedes and Aeschylus were performed: Did Oxford make his way to Greece ... and here?

“I pray great, merciful God,” Lewin continues, “that, if my master sets out for Constantinople, He might guide him and bring him back, not only safe, but very well endowed in all ways … I pray the same should he remain in Italy.  But I certainly pray he does not head for Greece, because when he was at Paris I observed that he was enticed by a certain petty glory attached to that journey…

“For your Lordship is not ignorant how quickly he is taken by a surfeit of these or similar things.  But, you will say, Italy abounds with a variety of all the pleasures.  Certainly it is rife with all manner of sensual pleasures, but these are not the most solid or the longest-lasting ones, but rather those from which those of the greatest good taste are most quickly estranged.

“This which I write might strike some as a paradox … It is a philosopher’s problem, arisen from usage and experience, that in all things, dislike is a near neighbor to all things that please the senses … that the things which give the greatest delight are the quickest to disgust us with their surfeit.”

The famous Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco (1546-1591); another courtesan, Virginia Padoana, was said by an English traveler to "honoreth all our nation for my lord of Oxford's sake."

All such pleasures “may be found in Italy,” Lewin writes, “not to a small degree, but in abundance.  One does not have to seek them out, they are offered to him.  As assuredly they purvey disgust and offense, particularly concerning those things which entail a certain natural surfeit.  So what is to be done?  This is primarily for you to decide,” he tells Burghley.  “I do not know what I should do beyond using my letters to place before his eyes the richer pleasures of refined learning as a contrast to those Italian ones.

“If these enter into his mind and lodge themselves there, perhaps we shall recall him to his former enthusiasms more quickly, and the efforts we suggest will give him more pleasure than the delights of his everyday perceptions.  It is likewise possible that Sturm’s delightfulness and elegance will grip him with the greatest desire, for from this he originally appeared to derive incredible pleasure.”

And now one of my favorite parts of the letter:

I think the ears of our Ulysses need to be plugged and blocked, lest they be moved by those Siren-songs, and that he must be restrained as soon a possible, so that there is no need to wait for him to be alienated by disgust…”

On the other hand:

“In some way I fail to understand, whether it is located in the thing itself or in our nature, but we are fired by being forbidden.  By being held back we grow hot for things which, were we unrestrained and free to enjoy, we ourselves would often reject, and, as Ovid writes, ‘We always strive for the forbidden, and desire that which is denied us.’”

If only Lewin knew he was trying to catch up with the young man who would go on to write Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and other great plays with Italian settings … if only he knew his elusive “master,” upon whom he’d been told to spy, would become “William Shakespeare”.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Whoever wrote this letter need not ever worry about having to buy lunch.

    • Ha! Let’s both take him out to lunch, on us!


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