Reason No. 25 to Believe that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare: His Grant of a Thousand Pounds Per Year

English ships battle Spain's Armada - 1588

On June 26, 1586, when England was officially at war with Spain and bracing for King Philip’s invasion by armada, Queen Elizabeth signed a warrant granting Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford an extraordinary allowance of a thousand pounds per year.  The grant was to be paid to him by the Exchequer, according to the same formula used for payments to Secretary Francis Walsingham and his wartime secret service, that is, to be made 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, to secure Elizabeth’s safety and the survival of her realm; and Walsingham required a constant flow of cash to pay foreign and domestic spies for his network of espionage.  Back in 1582 the Queen had given him 750 pounds; in 1586 she raised it to two thousand pounds; but that would be the limit for her spymaster — even during 1588, the year of England’s surprising victory over the Armada.

Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-1590)

So why would Elizabeth — known for being a most parsimonious (some would say miserly) monarch — choose to support a “spendthrift” nobleman who had “wasted” the vast bulk of his great inheritance?  And why would she authorize such a large annual pension to be paid to him right now, of all times, at this most perilous moment for the nation?

Oxford’s grant apparently went unnoticed by historians until two years after John Thomas Looney published “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford 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 James of Scotland for political reasons, he found, the grant to Oxford was larger than any other except for the annual 1,200 pounds to the Master of the Posts for the expenses of that office.

As Ward noted in his 1928 documentary biography The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, there’s 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.”  The warrant also stated that the Exchequer was not to call upon Oxford to render any account of its expenditure, as in the case of secret service money.

Blackfriars Playhouse - In the 1580's Oxford gave the lease of it to John Lyly

Edward de Vere at age thirty-six was in fact broke and needed “to be in some manner relieved,” but the circumstantial evidence clearly suggests he had been working with Secretary Walsingham (and his father-in-law, William Cecil Lord Burghley) to serve the government’s interests.  The evidence points to him playing a multi-faceted role behind the scenes that included, but was not limited to, the issuance of his own “comedies” for the stage – as the anonymous writer of The Arte of English Poesie would write in 1589: “For tragedy Lord Buckhurst and Master Edward Ferrys do deserve the highest praise: the Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of Her Majesty’s Chapel for Comedy and Enterlude.”

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; and others working under his wing included Robert Greene, John Lyly and Thomas Lodge, to name just a few more.

It was Walsingham himself who had initiated formation of Queen Elizabeth’s Men in 1583.  (He had received his first regular allowance for espionage after years of financing it from his own pocket, just as Oxford had been financing acting companies, writers and musicians with his personal funds.) The Secretary ordered the twelve best actors from existing companies to be transferred into the new Queen’s Men.  Then in January 1584 Oxford’s adult company performed at Court with his secretary Lyly as payee; and in March that year Oxford’s company performed with the Queen’s players at Court, again with Lyly handling the business side.

So the two acting companies had been amalgamated, with Oxford’s secretary apparently serving as business agent, stage manager and rehearsal coach.   In other words, soon after the head of the Secret Service had spawned Her Majesty’s own acting group, Edward de Vere rushed to contribute in various ways to its success.  Meanwhile, the plots of several royal history plays performed in the 1580’s by the Queen’s Men – including The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, The Troublesome Reign of King John and The True Tragedy of Richard III – would appear in the 1590’s and later as virtually the same plots of plays attributed to Shakespeare.

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.  “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 at least two companies always on tour, 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.)  And I suggest, first of all, that Oxford had spent much of his fortune on helping to bring the European Renaissance to England – on his travels in 1575-1576 through France, Germany and Italy; and on his employment of various artists who would create the great surge of English literature and drama in the 1580’s, leading to “Shakespeare” in the following decade.

In a real sense Edward de Vere was a leader (or the leader) in creating a new English language, culture and national identity — weapons as important as ships and guns in building up England’s ability to withstand attack.  And we could not expect to find these matters written down in the Queen’s Privy Seal Warrant authorizing his grant.

Six decades later, the Rev. John Ward, vicar of Stratford Parish in Warwickshire, recorded local rumors in his diary (1661-1663) 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 thousand pounds during the rest of the Anglo-Spanish War, from 1586 through the death of Elizabeth in 1603 and the succession of King James, until his own death in 1604.  That amounts to a total of eighteen years; and, of course, eighteen years times two plays per year equals thirty-six plays, the number of them published in the First Folio of Shakespeare in 1623.  Coincidence?

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