No. 51 of 100 Reasons Why the Earl of Oxford = “Shakespeare”: He Was Steeped in the Military Knowledge to be Found in the Plays

“Warfare is everywhere in Shakespeare, and the military action in many of Shakespeare’s plays, and the military imagery in all his plays and poems show that he possessed an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of warfare, both ancient and modern.”

The Elizabethan army in Ireland

The above comes from Charles Edelman, author of Shakespeare’s Military Language: A Dictionary (2000), which provides what the publisher calls “a comprehensive account of Shakespeare’s portrayal of military life, tactics and technology and explores how the plays comment upon military incidents and personalities of the Elizabethan era.”

I don’t know how orthodox biographers imagine William Shakspere of Stratford accumulating all that “extraordinarily detailed knowledge” of warfare and military matters.  Perhaps they see him acquiring it through automatic assimilation, by which all intricacies are miraculously absorbed into the very fiber of his being and translated into the dialogue of characters in his plays.

“Shakespeare expresses the courtier-soldier’s point of view too clearly and naturally and displays far too familiar a grasp of military methods, objectives and colloquialisms not to have acquired this knowledge through serious study – plus firsthand experience – of the arts of war,” Oxfordian scholar Charles Wisner Barrell wrote in 1945.  “No such study and experience can be documented in the career of the Stratford native.”

(At issue is “information” as opposed to innate genius – knowledge “communicated or received concerning particular facts or circumstances,” as my dictionary puts it, or “gained through study, research, instruction, experience.”   The great author’s information about military life was acquired; and he appears to draw upon his wealth of information not in any calculated way but spontaneously, during the white heat of composition, using it for various purposes the way an artist will mix paints on his canvas.)

On and on come the military terms in the plays, as in 2 Henry IV,  for example, with words such as alarum, ancient, archer, beacon, beaver, besonian, blank, bounce, bullet, Caesar’s thrasonical brag, caliver, captain, chamber, charge, cavalier, chivalry, coat, corporal … well, you get the point.

When Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford is perceived as the author, there’s no need for miracles.  “In every outstanding instance of specialized knowledge,” Barrell noted, “Oxford’s personal familiarity with the subject can be categorically documented; and this is particularly true in respect to ‘Shakespeare’s’ fund of military information.”

Oxford unquestionably acquired information about “military life, tactics and technology” in ways such as these:

Horatio Vere

*  Oxford’s cousins Horatio and Francis Vere, known as the “Fighting Veres” for their exploits as soldiers, may have been the models for the soldiers Horatio and Francisco in Hamlet.

Francis Vere (1560-1609)

Also Oxford’s brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby d’Eresby, devoted his life to the political and military service of Queen Elizabeth.

*  When the Northern Rebellion of powerful Catholic earls began in November 1569, Oxford at nineteen requested military service, which was granted in the spring of 1570, when he served under his great friend the Earl of Sussex.

Hume Castle

The chief action he would have seen was the siege of Hume Castle, whose defenders surrendered to avoid further bombardment.

(The episode calls to mind the siege of Harfleur by Henry V.)

*  Oxford was champion of his first tournament at the Whitehall Tiltyard, in May 1571, performing “far above expectation of the world” in front of Queen Elizabeth and the royal court.  He blazed his way “with fiery energy,” contemporary Giles Fletcher wrote, summoning “a mimicry of war” as he “controls his foaming steed with a light rein, and armed with a long spear rides to the encounter … Bravo, valiant youth!  ‘Tis thus that martial spirits pass through their apprenticeship in war … The country sees in thee both a leader pre-eminent in war, and a skillful man-at-arms…”

(A decade later, in January 1581, Oxford prevailed as champion of his second and final such tournament.)

*  In August 1572 he played the starring role in the staged military battle at Warwick Castle (see Reason No. 50), leading 200 armed soldiers of one fortified position against those of another; and the contemporary account of this extravagant and realistic entertainment supplied the kind of military terms to appear later in the “Shakespeare” plays:  “battering pieces … chambers … mortar pieces … assaults … calivers … arquebuses …”

*  An important book published 1579, entitled The Defense of Militaire Profession.  Wherein is eloquently shewed the due commendation of Martiall prowess, and plainly proved how necessary the exercise of Armes is for this our age, by was dedicated by its author, Geffrey Gates, “To the Right honorable Edward de Vere, Earle of Oxenford.”  The publisher, John Harrison, would later issue Venus and Adonis of 1593 and Lucrece of 1594, thereby introducing “William Shakespeare” by way of their dedications to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton.

*  On June 25, 1585, Oxford wrote to William Cecil Lord Burghley asking for a loan to help in his suit for a military command in the Netherlands in England’s impending war with Spain.  At one point he launched into a particularly Shakespearean string of military metaphors, writing, “For, being now almost at a point to taste that good which her Majesty shall determine, yet am I as one that hath long besieged a fort and not able to compass the end or reap the fruit of his travail, being forced to levy his siege for want of munition.”  (Emphasis added.)

(That word “munition” was not too common at the time, but “Shakespeare” used it more than once, as when Gloucester in 1 Henry VI declares, “I’ll to the Tower with all the haste I can/ To view the artillery and munition.”)

*  Later that summer, Oxford at thirty-five was commissioned to command a company of horse in the Low Countries.  “Five or six thousand English soldiers have arrived in Flanders with the Earl of Oxford and Colonel Norris,” came one report in September.  A month later, however, the Queen inexplicably commanded Oxford to return home and sent as his replacement the Earl of Leicester, who, having maneuvered his way into replacing Oxford, would proceed to disgrace himself by his behavior in Holland.

*  Oxford was reported among the many “honorable personages” in the summer of 1588 who “were suddenly embarked, committing themselves unto the present chance of war” once the mighty Spanish armada had arrived for its mission to crush England.  Apparently Oxford’s ship was disabled, because he went directly for his armour, and even his enemy Leicester reported that “he seems most willing to hazard his life in this quarrel.”

How did “Shakespeare” acquire his military knowledge?  The answer is Reason 51 to believe Edward de Vere was the great author.

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