Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was born in 1550 at Castle Hedingham in the county of Essex. He inherited the title at the age of twelve when his father, a man of low repute and something of a philanderer, died in 1562. After his father's death he became the ward of Sir William Cecil, the celebrated Lord Burleigh of Elizabeth 1st's reign. He received legal training at Gray's Inn and was later awarded Master of Arts degrees by Oxford and Cambridge universities.
From the outset, Oxford was powerfully connected; so well connected that, at the age of seventeen, after killing an unarmed servant (probably through horse-play) during fencing practice with a man called Edward Baynam, he managed to avoid a murder charge with Cecil's help. From that year forward, he knew he could always rely on Cecil to help him out of any trouble he might get into - and there were frequent times of trouble.
At the age of twenty-one (1571) Oxford married Anne Cecil, Sir William's fifteen-year-old daughter but was soon following in his father's marital footsteps, being frequently unfaithful to her despite the fact that she became pregnant in 1574. In all, she bore him three daughters and died in 1588.
He (as did everyone) lived in violent and dangerous times both politically and in religious terms. But, by all accounts, he sailed very close to the wind indeed and, with a number of his servants being involved in murders or attempted murders during 1573, his reputation was less than savoury - despite the fact that he was something of a favourite of Queen Elizabeth and enjoyed the patronage of Lord Burleigh. In the year that his wife conceived their first child, Oxford fled England for a short time.
In 1575 he obtained the Queen's permission to go to Italy. He had a sumptuous house built in Venice and took an Italian mistress but, when he returned to England in the following year he brought back with him a fifteen year old chorister and settled him in a house in London where he, too, lived. He severed all ties with his wife and daughter. The Italian choirboy was in London for close on a year.
For the next ten years Oxford squandered more and more of his family fortune and was associated with many violent skirmishes and frequent deaths. It is quite possible that he paid out a contract for at least one assassination and on one occasion he was himself wounded in a fracas. His tongue was as sharp as his rapier and his temper hot and fast. He is known to have issued a written challenge to Sir Phillip Sydney over an incident at the tennis court at Greenwich Palace for which he was put under house arrest for ten days or so by the Queen herself.
Durning this same period, he fathered a child in 1581, born to Anne Vavasor, one of the Queen's Maids of Honour. She gave birth to a son. She was sent to the Tower of London while Oxford made himself scarce. However, he was caught, arrested and held again for a time. By hook or by crook, by denouncing friends (on religious or criminal matters), by informing or otherwise playing "the game" of politics and favour, Oxford trod a fine line, drifting in and out of notoriety in much the same way as a twentieth century Capone.
Oxford mixed with men (and women) from all walks of life and none more so than from the world of plays and entertainments. At about this time he invested in the Earl of Warwick's players. This company existed without change between 1580 and 1602 when it amalgamated with Worcester's Men. Among Oxford's retinue, as a secretary, at this time was the playwright, John Lyly.
By 1586 and after a serious confrontation with Queen Elizabeth (who despite all, regarded him still with favour and affection) he managed to persuade her (with Burleigh's support) to grant him an annual income with which to re-build his fortune. In fact, he spent the remaining years of his life in an attempt to rebuild his fortune. To begin with, when he was free to marry again in 1588, he chose a wealthy bride in Elizabeth Trentham. She presented him with a male heir (Henry de Vere) in 1593.
He continued to spend his money, patronise the arts, invest (often unwisely) and live beyond his means. He wrote many subsequent begging letters to Burleigh requesting finacial support but received none nor did he ever again receive financial support from Queen Elizabeth. He died in 1604 several years before some of William Shakespeare's greatest works saw the light of day.