- Edward de Vere (1550–1604): The Crisis and Consequences of Wardship
Today, the subject of this book, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, is probably best known as one of the candidates advanced by so-called anti-Stratfordians as the real author of the works of William Shakespeare. To his contemporaries, however, he was probably most famous as a paragon of aristocratic misbehavior. He flirted with Catholicism and with treason. While married, unhappily, to Anne Cecil (Burghley's daughter), he had an affair with Anne Vavasour, one of the queen's maids of honor, and engaged in a murderous feud with the latter's uncle, Sir Thomas Knyvett. In an age of spectacular spendthrifts, Oxford was, Lawrence Stone writes, "the greatest wastrel of them all" (The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 172). In 1562 Oxford had a landed income, according to Pearson, of about £3,500 a year. But he proceeded to sell off most of his estate, and by 1604 only a crown pension and advantageous second marriage saved him from penury. Early on, Oxford was one of the queen's favorites, but in time his misdeeds cost him his position at court. Oxford's few redeeming qualities were literary; he was a poet of some skill and reputation and was described by a contemporary as one of the writers of the time "best for comedy." He was patron of a company of players from 1590 to 1602. (These are the frail foundations upon which his modern champions construct Oxford's claim to the authorship of King Lear, Hamlet, and the rest.)
Oxford may have been an unattractive character, but by virtue of his birth and [End Page 612] wealth (if not for any particular accomplishment valued by later generations) he was an important figure in Elizabethan England and deserves the study offered here. Pearson presents a portrait of one aristocrat as a case study to assess some of the conclusions of Lawrence Stone's monumental Crisis of the Aristocracy. The volume is organized not so much as a biography of Oxford as a series of essays on various aspects of his life and career — his finances, his religious life, and so on. There is much of interest here, and the book adds to our understanding of a particular Elizabethan aristocratic life and of Elizabethan aristocratic life in general. Her fellow historians will admire Pearson for her willingness to wrestle with Oxford's financial and estate records, no fun task.
Unfortunately, the book's virtues are matched by several faults. First of all, her handling of a major theme of the book is unsatisfactory. The volume's preface and its subtitle promise close attention to wardship, the feudal survival that subjected many landowners to financial exploitation during their minorities. But wardship is not, after all, a particular focus of the book, and the premise that wardship had grave consequences for Oxford is not substantiated. When Oxford took possession of his lands, he owed the queen a little more than £3,300 as a result of his wardship, the supposed source of all his future woes. But about the same time, as Pearson notes, Burghley gave him £3,000 plus £800 worth of land for his daughter's marriage portion — enough to pay Oxford's debts to the queen and have a little something left over, leaving his substantial estate intact. It seems fairly obvious, on Pearson's own showing, that the cause of Oxford's financial troubles was not his debt to the queen but his prodigious spending. The burden of wardship was perfectly manageable had Oxford not been such a wastrel.
Unfortunately too, Pearson's writing is often confusing, and often she seems determined not to omit any of the facts she has painstakingly collected. Moreover, too frequently she makes incorrect or puzzling statements that reveal an uncer-tain grasp of the larger history of the time. She writes, for example, that "it is possible . . . that in embracing conversion [to Catholicism] the...