“The Queen’s Majesty sendeth at this present the Earl of Oxenford into the north parts to remain with my Lord of Sussex & to be employed there in her Majesty’s service …” – Sir William Cecil, Master of the Court of Wards (and future Lord Burghley), March 30, 1570, authorizing payment of forty pounds to Edward de Vere for “his charges whilst he shall remain in those parts.”
“Those parts” of northern England and the border counties of Scotland would have seemed a “strange and foreign place” to young Oxford, writes Mark Anderson, adding that so far most of the earl’s life (as he approached his twentieth birthday) probably had been spent “within a one or two days’ ride from the queen and her court.” Now, accompanied by servants and soldiers, de Vere embarked upon a ten-day, 270-mile journey on horseback to the front lines – venturing into a feudal world where the calendar seemed to have stood still.
Queen Elizabeth’s forces had been mobilized to prevent the Catholic nobles of the north from advancing upon London with their armies. The rebel leaders had hoped to replace the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII with Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, who had fled to England for safety and remained Elizabeth’s captive. By now the English columns had soundly crushed the rebellion; but Thomas Radcliffe, third Earl of Sussex, was obeying his sovereign’s command by waging a campaign of barbarous reprisal that would “leave a memory in Scotland whereof they and their children shall be afraid” to attack England ever again.
“Nothing in Elizabeth’s life is more dreadful than the callous savagery which she permitted, and more than permitted, in the slaughter and pillage that followed the northern rebellion,” the old Dictionary of National Biography states, adding that she “did as her father would have done in the fury of his wrath.”
Here, then, is one snapshot: Edward de Vere, coming upon his first taste of war and entering the terrible scenes of its final chapters – a seemingly endless, scarred landscape of ongoing death and destruction … hanging corpses … charred ruins, still smoking … eight hundred rebels hanged … three hundred villages burned … fifty castles razed …. forty other buildings leveled … an orgy of government retribution.
Now another picture comes into focus: a snapshot of Oxford with Thomas Radcliffe, third Earl of Sussex, 44, apparently serving on his staff. Sussex was a man of courage, bluntness, intellect and empathy. Twenty-four years Oxford’s senior, he would become a father figure, mentor, colleague, friend and close ally in mutual antipathy toward Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the queen’s intimate favorite, who was rumored to be a serial poisoner. Upon his deathbed in June 1583, Sussex would harshly warn Sir Christopher Hatton about Leicester’s malignity: “Beware of the gypsy. He will betray you. You do not know the beast as well as I do.”
“The earl of Sussex was one of the great nobles of the Elizabethan period,” the Encyclopedia Britannica records. “Though his loyalty was questioned by his enemies, it was as unwavering as his patriotism. He shone as a courtier; he excelled in diplomacy; he was a man of cultivation and even of scholarship, a patron of literature and of the drama on the eve of its blossoming into the glory it became soon after his death” – that is, during the rest of the 1580s, when his protégé the earl of Oxford would act as the foremost patron of writers working to create that very blossoming that would reach its climax with “Shakespeare” in 1593.
Oxford served in Scotland when Sussex was still in anguish over the orders he was carrying out. As commander of the English forces, gifted with strategic brilliance and military prowess, he nonetheless abhorred what his sovereign ruler had told him to do. Back in January he had written to the Privy Council recommending a policy of restraint; he would execute “some” of the rebels to make an “example” of them; otherwise the “principal offenders” would be imprisoned, and, crucially, England would “extend her Majesty’s mercy” to their lowly, poor followers.
The queen, however, was “wound up to a pitch of anger that spurned this suggestion,” Elizabeth Jenkins writes. On her command to Sussex, only those same poor followers of the Catholic earls were being hanged. What made this policy so odious was her motive: Elizabeth Tudor was furious about the cost of putting down the rebellion; therefore, those with greater wealth and power were spared and allowed to buy their pardons with cash or land.
A final snapshot: Oxford would have witnessed Sussex’s twelve-hour siege of Hume Castle. Bombardment of the fortress was followed by Lord Hume’s suit for a parley, to which Sussex agreed. The defenders were allowed to retire upon abandoning their weapons – the way “Shakespeare” would depict Henry V laying siege to Harfleur, followed by the Governor’s suit for a parley and the king’s mercy.
Mark Anderson, Shakespeare By Another Name, 2005; pp. 42-43
J.R. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, 1939; p. 143
William Camden, Annales; Anno Domini 1570
Dictionary of National Biography – Elizabeth I; Thomas Radcliffe
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. XXVI
Nina Green, The Oxford Authorship Site, Documents; National Archives SP 15/19/37, f.88
Paul Hammer, Elizabeth’s Wars, 2003; p.83
Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great, 1959; pp. 153-155, 252
J.R. Neale, Queen Elizabeth, 1934; p. 189
Charlton Ogburn, Jr., The Mysterious William Shakespeare, 1984, 1992; pp. 467-469
B.M. Ward, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, 1928; p. 48