The Poet-Earl of Surrey, Who Introduced the “Shakespearean” Sonnet, was the Earl of Oxford’s Uncle: No. 55 of 100 Reasons Why Oxford was the Great Author

If William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon (1564-1616) could have boasted that one of his uncles had introduced the sonnet form later used and made famous by “Shakespeare,” probably fewer folks in the future would have questioned his identity as the great writer and author of SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547)

Well, the Stratford man had no such uncle; but in fact that was the case for Edward de Vere,  seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), whose uncle Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), was one of the founders of English Renaissance poetry.

Sir Thomas Wyatt, who belonged to the cultivated circle at the Court of Henry VIII and was Surrey’s senior by fifteen years

One of Oxford’s aunts, Frances de Vere (a sister of his father, the sixteenth Earl), had married Surrey, the nobleman-poet who, with his friend Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), had pioneered the writing of English sonnets.  [Wyatt and Surrey are known as the “Fathers of the English Sonnet.”]  Surrey himself was the one who created the rhyming meter and quatrain divisions of the “Elizabethan” or “Shakespearean” form of sonnet.

Surrey was beheaded in January 1547 by the dying Henry VIII, who had become increasingly paranoid as illness overwhelmed him.  Without evidence the king had accused the poet-earl of treason, charging him with planning to usurp the crown from his nine-year-old son, the future Edward VI of England.

“Songs and Sonnettes,” usually called Tottel’s Miscellany, 1557, was the first printed anthology of English verse, containing 271 poems, forty of them by Oxford’s uncle the Earl of Surrey and ninety-six by Sir Thomas Wyatt

In 1557, ten years after Surrey’s death and when Oxford was seven, the publisher Richard Tottel issued Songes and Sonettes written by the right honorable Lorde Henry Haward, late Earle of Surrey and other, known later and more famously as Tottel’s Miscellany.  (It was the custom for noblemen’s poetry to be printed posthumously.)  This was the first printed anthology of English poetry in history.  It was also the most important verse collection of the sixteenth century, running into many editions during Elizabeth’s reign.

With his translations of two books of Virgil’s Aeneid, Surrey was the first English poet to publish blank verse; and in this, too, Oxford’s uncle prepared the way for Shakespeare.  Well before his death Surrey’s poetry (inspired by the Italians) had been circulated in manuscript, so that Edward de Vere as a very young child would have seen copies held by his relatives.  Aunt Frances, his father’s sister and Surrey’s widow, herself a versifier, lived until 1577 when Oxford was twenty-seven.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), creator of the English or “Shakespearean” form of sonnet and uncle of Edward de Vere

[As a young man Oxford was close to his cousins, Surrey’s sons Thomas Howard, fouth Duke of Norfolk (1536-1572), who was executed for taking part in the Ridolfi plot to put the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots on the throne; and Henry Howard, the future Earl of Northampton (1540-1614), who was one of those responsible for turning Oxford against his wife Anne Cecil in 1576.  This younger son of Surrey was extremely well-educated and intelligent, which would have drawn Oxford to him, but he also had a “stupendous want of principle,” as Sir Sidney Lee writes in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB); and Oxford would accuse him in 1580 of plotting a Catholic overthrow of Queen Elizabeth on behalf of the still-captive Mary Stuart.]

Oxford’s relatives and their friends had been personally and actively involved in the rise of English poetry that would flourish in the Elizabethan age and reach its extraordinary heights in the poems, plays and sonnets of “William Shakespeare.”  These poets had included not only Wyatt and Surrey, but others such as:

Thomas, Lord Vaux, who died in 1556; two of his poems appeared in Tottel’s Miscellany (1557); thirteen are in The Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), which contains youthful poetry of Edward de Vere

Thomas Lord Vaux (1509-1556), inventor of the six-line stanza used for verses of both Oxford and “Shakespeare.”  Lord Vaux contributed some verse posthumously to The Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), in which seven of Oxford’s poems appeared under the initials E.O.; and that nobleman-poet of an earlier generation had also created a song incorporated by “Shakespeare,” with adaptation, into the Gravedigger’s song in Hamlet.

Edmund Baron Sheffield (1521-1549), another of Oxford’s poet-uncles.  Sheffield, husband of the sixteenth Earl of Oxford’s sister Anne de Vere, has been linked with Surrey as an upholder of “chivalric poetry.”  He was reported to have had great “skill in music” and to have written “a book of sonnets in the Italian fashion,” but all these have been lost.  (Sheffield had little time; he died at twenty-eight, in the act of helping to suppress a rebellion.)

Tottel’s Miscellany, Penquin Classics, Introduction by Tom McFaul & Amanda Holton

Thomas Churchyard (1520-1604), a soldier-poet and an indefatigable “miscellaneous” writer who, according to the DNB, “was attached in his youth to the household of the famous Earl of Surrey, whose memory he fondly cherished throughout his long life.”

After serving militarily against Spain in the Low Countries on behalf of Prince William of Orange, the Protestant champion, Churchyard returned to England in 1567 and a year later entered the employ of eighteen-year-old Edward de Vere.  [He soon embarked on an intelligence mission abroad, probably for Oxford’s guardian William Cecil, chief minister to the Queen.]

In 1580, according to Steven May, Churchyard proposed dedicating two works to “the most worthiest (and towards noble man), the Erle of Oxford,” who was spending his own money (and draining his purse) on patronizing many men of letters.  Among them was Thomas Churchyard, who must have captured Oxford’s full attention while recalling his youthful service to the Earl of Surrey – bringing us back full-circle to No. 55 of 100 Reasons why Edward de Vere was “Shakespeare.”

“Set Me Whereas the Sun Doth Parch the Green”

A Sonnet by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green

Or where his beams do not dissolve the ice,

In temperate heat where he is felt and seen,

In presence prest of people, mad or wise;

Set me in high or yet in low degree,

In longest night or in the shortest day,

In clearest sky or where clouds thickest be,

In lusty youth or when my hairs are gray.

Set me in heaven, in earth, or else in hell,

In hill, or dale, or in the foaming flood;

Thrall or at large, alive whereso I dwell,

Sick or in health, in evil fame or good:

Hers will I be, and only with this thought

Content myself although my chance be nought.

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