Oxford’s Thousand-Pound Grant: Re-posting No. 25 of 100 Reasons He Was “Shakespeare”

“But if Her Majesty, in regard of my youth, time, and fortune spent in her Court, and her favors and promises which drew me on without any mistrust, the more to presume in mine own expenses…” – Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford to Robert Ceil, 2 February 1601, describing how he had gone bankrupt in financing his activities (which were not specified) for Queen Elizabeth and the English government.

On June 26, 1586, when England was two years into the official war with Spain and bracing for King Philip’s invasion, the queen signed a warrant granting Oxford an extraordinary allowance of 1,000 pounds per year (roughly equivalent to about $400,000 today; also, in Elizabethan times a pound could buy much more than now). The grant was to be paid to him by the Exchequer, by the same formula for payments to Francis Walsingham and his wartime secret service: in quarterly installments with no accounting required.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

At this time the English government desperately needed all available cash for military defense; moreover, Walsingham required a constant flow of cash to pay foreign and domestic spies. Back in 1582 the Queen had given him 750 pounds; in 1586 she raised it to 2,000 pounds, but that would be the limit for her spymaster, even during the crucial year 1588.

Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-1590)

Why would Elizabeth, known for being a parsimonious (some would say miserly) monarch, choose to support a “spendthrift” nobleman who had “wasted” the vast bulk of his great inheritance?  Why would she do so at this most perilous moment for the nation?

De Vere’s grant went unnoticed by historians until two years after John Thomas Looney published his work on Oxford as “Shakespeare” in 1920.  Inspired to conduct further research, B. M. Ward discovered Elizabeth’s signature on the Privy Seal Warrant and then looked at surviving records for all other salaries and annuities paid from the Exchequer during her reign.  Aside from sums paid to King James VI of Scotland for political reasons, Ward found that the grant to Oxford was larger than any other except for the award to Walsingham and an annual 1,200-pound grant to the Master of the Posts for the ongoing expenses of that office.

As Ward noted, there is no hint as to the purpose of the grant except that it was “to be continued unto him during Our pleasure, or until such time as he shall be by us otherwise provided for to be in some manner relieved, at what time our pleasure is that this payment of one thousand pounds yearly to our said cousin in manner above specified shall cease.”

Blackfriars Playhouse – In the 1580’s Oxford gave the lease of it to John Lyly

By 1586, the thirty-six-year-old de Vere was, in fact, broke; he surely did need “to be in some manner relieved,” but the circumstantial evidence clearly suggests he had been working with Walsingham (and William Cecil Lord Burghley) to serve the government’s interests.  The evidence points to him playing a multifaceted role behind the scenes that included, but was not limited to, the issuance of his own “comedies” for the stage.

Oxford actively patronized two acting companies performing at the private Blackfriars Playhouse and at the royal court.  He patronized and/or employed many literary men for whom he provided working space, inspiration, guidance and freedom from the wartime suppression of written words and speech.  Some of the writers in his service, such as Anthony Munday and Thomas Watson, operated as secret service agents (as did Christopher Marlowe) while using their artistic activities as public cover. Others working under his wing included Robert Greene, John Lyly and Thomas Lodge.

The anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth was performed by the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s

“The formation of the Queen’s Men in 1583 should be regarded particularly in connection with the intelligence system,” Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean write in The Queen’s Men and Their Plays (1998). “The point is not that the Queen’s Men were spies, but that traveling players wearing the Queen’s livery would have been useful to Walsingham – perhaps for occasionally bearing messages to the right persons, more obviously for showing that the central government was attending to the nation through its licensed travelers.”

With two companies on tour (except during the winter season, when they played at court), the Queen’s Men performed plays that would rouse patriotic fervor and encourage unity among Protestants and Catholics in the face of the coming Spanish invasion.  To call this “propaganda” would be true, but not the whole of it. Oxford had spent much of his fortune on helping to bring the European Renaissance to England – a result of his travels in 1575-1576 through France, Germany and Italy, and his employment of various artists who would create the great surge of English literature and drama in the 1580s, leading to the emergence of “Shakespeare” in the following decade.

The writers in Oxford’s orbit were creating a new English language, culture and national identity; these were weapons as important as ships and guns in building England’s ability and will to withstand attack. We cannot expect, however, to find these matters written down in the Queen’s Privy Seal Warrant authorizing his grant.

In the early 1660s, the Rev. John Ward, vicar of Stratford Parish in Warwickshire, recorded local rumors in his diary that “Shakespeare” had “supplied the stage with two plays every year and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of a thousand pounds a year.”

The Armada Battle

In fact, Oxford received his annual 1,000 pounds during the rest of the Anglo-Spanish War, from 1586 through the death of Elizabeth in 1603 and the succession of James, until his own death in 1604.  That amounts to eighteen years, and, of course, two plays per year equals thirty-six, the number of works published in the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in 1623.  There is no record that Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon ever received any allowance from the government or from anyone else.

It looks as though Rev. Ward had come into some accurate information about England’s greatest writer, even though, by that time, the author’s identity had been paved over and sealed by official history.

(Note: This post now appears as No. 43 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford.)

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Daddy came home from one of his ‘trips’ and handed me what I believe to be a ‘Collier’s’ magazine that he wanted me to read, with an article about Christopher Marlowe. I think I was in second or third grade, and was a good reader, having been reading Mom’s and Dad’s college textbooks, especially the English Literature texts. So I had been reading Shakespeare’s plays in those books. The article discussed Marlowe’s plays, his spying, and his murder. Usually when Dad did that to me, which he did frequently, I knew I must pay attention. The article was really good….and now I believe that it was to support the family oral tradition.

    On Wed, Feb 28, 2018, 8:47 PM Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog wrote:

    > Hank Whittemore posted: “”But if Her Majesty, in regard of my youth, time, > and fortune spent in her Court, and her favors and promises which drew me > on without any mistrust, the more to presume in mine own expenses…” – > Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford to Robert Ceil, 2 February 16″ >

    • How very interesting. You are a treasure of connections and memories. Stay well these days. Hope to meet you at some point. Thanks for this one.


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