Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford


May, Courtier Poets

Steven W. May, The Elizabethan Courtier Poets (University of Missouri, 1991).

May, Poems

Steven W. May, ‘The Poems of Edward DeVere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex’, Studies in Philology, 77, No. 5 (Early Winter 1980).


Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, was notorious in his own time for his eccentric and sometimes outrageous behaviour. Today he is largely remembered as one in the lengthy list of unlikely candidates proposed by amateur scholars as author of the works of Shakespeare.

Oxford did, however, write more than competent lyrical poems, and evidence of his contemporary reputation as a poet, or at least as a literary arbiter, lies in the twenty-eight or so printed books dedicated to him by the likes of John Lyly, Thomas Watson, Arthur Golding, and Anthony Munday. Even Edmund Spenser incorporated a compliment to him near the end of The Faerie Queene (1590).

The Canon

Oxford's poems evidently had limited circulation in manuscript and some were gathered in contemporary and later miscellanies, both manuscript and printed. From the attributions given in these sources it is possible to form a provisional canon of some twenty poems by him, although even then five are less than certain (OxE 35-49). One of them has traditionally been attributed to Sir Edward Dyer (DyE 35-63), and yet another (OxE 45-49) is also found attributed to Oxford's mistress, Anne Vavasor.

For present purposes, the canon established by Steven May is accepted, including (with the exception of the poem relegated to Dyer) his category of ‘Poems Possibly by Oxford’.

Letters and Documents

Oxford also wrote (not given entries here) a considerable number of letters, as well as signing various legal and other documents. In his comprehensive biography Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Liverpool, 2003), Alan H. Nelson lists (pp. 487-9) seventy-seven extant letters and memoranda by Oxford, most of them autograph and dating from 1563 onwards, including two draft legal interrogatories and twenty-seven letters and memoranda specifically relating to his protracted and unsuccessful attempts to acquire the pre-emption of tin-mining in Cornwall and Devon. These and numerous other documents by or relating to Oxford cited by Nelson are found principally in the British Library; National Archives, Kew; archives of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House; and the Huntington Library. Some of these and various other relevant documents are cited in Daphne Pearson, Edward de Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis and Consequences of Wardship (Aldershot, 2005), with (pp. [240-1]) facsimile examples of two documents signed by Oxford now in the Cornwall Record Office and Essex Record Office. A facsimile example of an autograph letter by Oxford to Lord Burghley, June 1581, in British Library, Lansdowne MS 33, f. 13r, is in Petti, English Literary Hands (1977), No. 28. No doubt many other such documents will come to light in due course, not least in sale catalogues, of which relatively recent examples would include those for Phillips, 19 October 1989, lot 145; Sotheby's, 13 December 2001, lot 232; and Bonhams, 17-18 December 2002, lot 772; 24 June 2003, lot 179; and 28 September 2004.

Peter Beal