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“I swear by God’s body, I’d rather that my son should hang than study letters. For it becomes the sons of gentlemen to blow the horn nicely, to hunt skillfully and elegantly, carry and train a hawk. But the study of letters should be left to the sons of rustics.”


In August 1564, the Queen ascended to Cambridge—for even she must be said to go up—with a train of courtiers. In honor of the great occasion, seventeen1 of that party, privy councillors and gilded youth, were granted degrees. Among those in the company so honored were Sir William Cecil and two of his royal wards: the hatchling earls Edward de Vere, the 17th of Oxford and Edward Manners, the 3rd of Rutland. They were then 14 and 15.

CaiusTwo years later, in the autumn of 1566, the figure was repeated: the Queen went up to Oxford, and among others, Cecil and the two young earls were created MAs.

Edward de Vere had lodged at Queens’ College, Cambridge for a few months at the age of eight. Notoriously, the only records of his sojourn are repeated bills for broken glass.2 He never studied at Oxford. And Edward Manners never formally attended either university.

What did these striplings do to deserve their honors? They were born to them.

At Cambridge, “the Elizabethan code authorised the University to confer degrees upon privy councillors, bishops, peers, and the sons of peers without requiring them to fulfil any of the conditions of time, exercises, or examination it imposed on other candidates,” writes D.A Winstanley in Unreformed Cambridge ( 79). Elizabeth was lavish with these honors. By James’s time, Winstanley goes on: “There was a real danger of its degrees being cheapened by the Crown. ... The Sovereign would generally be ready to grant a boon which cost him nothing, and the University would find it difficult to resist his commands.” (83)

Oxford had similar statutes. On this occasion, “Convocation ordered that as many earls, lords, and distinguished persons as the Chancellor … should determine were to be created M.A., if they accepted the offer and were admitted ‘to-day before the Queen’s departure.’” (Attention, shoppers!) “The Earl of Rutland, however, on account of his singular benevolence to the University, was to be created M.A. at any time and anywhere.” (Register of the University of Oxford, vol. 10, 234)

Good for Rutland! Nowadays, there’d be the Rutland Swimming Pool or the Manners Infirmary. Surely Oxford could have done something for the choirboys? Not a chair: perhaps the Edward de Vere Daybed of Music.

Keep in mind that all Oxbridge MAs are honorary. Their BAs are earned by hard work. After a certain number of years, without further study, achievement, or examination, and on payment of a fee, that BA can be converted to an MA. The distinction lies between “those that proceeded regularly” (that is, converted a genuine BA) and “such as were created” out of thin air.

Confusingly, though peers with actual hard BAs were scarce as snowflakes in July, a fair number of young noblemen are recorded as “proceeded M.A.” Those would have been degrees filius nobilis. “By ancient custom and statute the sons of noblemen (including bishops) had the privilege of proceeding to M.A. at once instead of first taking B.A.”.3 You might say they proceeded irregularly. All but certainly, they’d sat no exams. But an MA fil. nob. had done something with his time at Oxbridge.

The Earl of Oxford’s degrees, however, were comitia regia4: each commemorates a royal progress. The evidence is unambiguous. Both Edward de Vere and Edward Manners are down in the Cambridge record books as “M.A. 1564 ; on visit of the Queen” and ”M.A. 1564 (on Queen’s visit).” Both appear in the Oxford registers as “created M.A.” in both Universities.

These are satellite degrees, reflected honors: their glory is the Queen’s.

Whelps of Privilege

“The nobility of England brought up their sons as they entered their whelps, and thought them wise enough if they could chase the deer.” (CA 675)

What was a Viscount doing at Cambridge, anyway?

Whelp of PrivilegeUniversities in England had long been the province of commoners, the realm of “meane men’s children set to schole in hope to live upon hyred learning.” (CA 687). They made such men as Cardinal Wolsey and Lord Burghley, who rose to great power as the governors of the ruling classes. Cambridge made Sir Thomas Smith, a scholar-stateman at the cutting edge of the “humanist avant-garde” (ODNB), whom Oxfordians boast as the overseer of Viscount Bulbeck's education. With unconscious irony, they laud him as a self-made man. "Born to yeoman sheep farmers in the small Essex town of Saffron Walden..., Smith’s accomplishments were partly due to his own brilliant intellect and partly to fortune, for he lived at a time when men of sterling character and intellect from humble backgrounds could find a place in the burgeoning English Reformation." But not on the stage, oh no...


Learning came late to the peerage. Traditionally, the sons of the aristocracy were sent—as foster sons or hostages—to other lords’ castles, where they learned horsemanship, the management of weapons, courtesy, carving, dancing and singing, and religion. Not all were taught to read and write.

In his great study of Lord Oxford’s peers, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641, Lawrence Stone looks at where things stood in de Vere’s father’s generation, into his childhood and youth:

“Many, perhaps most, of the great aristocrats of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries could not sign their names.” (CA 675)

Take that in, before you sneer at Stratford.

Stone goes on with particulars: “When Sir Ralph Eure was accused of writing a treasonable letter in 1536, he rebutted the accusation on the grounds that he was unable to read or write more than his own name. ... It is significant that in 1547 it was thought worth while to insert in a bill a clause extending benefit of clergy to peers who were unable to read, and as late as the reign of Elizabeth there was one privy councillor, the 1st Earl of Pembroke, who was said to be unable to read or write, and who certainly had the greatest difficulty in scratching his signature on official documents. ... [I]n a remote area like Northumberland as late as the 1560’s, 92 out of 146 leading gentry were still unable to sign their names.” (CA 675)

In short, “The upper classes conducted most of their affairs by word of mouth, and the records were kept by clerical scribes.” (CA 675)


But “the ideals of Italian humanism were seeping in, a century late ... ; and there was developing a growing anxiety about the prospects of the nobility maintaining their grip on the key positions in the political system. ‘The fault is in your selves, ye noble men’s sonnes’, said Roger Ascham in 1570, ‘that commonlie the meaner mens children cum to be the wisest councellors and greatest doers in the weightie affaires of this Realme. And why? ...[B]icause ye will have it no otherwise, by your negligence.’ 'Cease nobles, therefore, to hate learnynge’, urged Lawrence Humphrey.” (CA 672-3)

No one (as yet) was calling for revolution. They saw that the fixed social hierarchy—the Great Chain of Being—was imperilled, and they sought to conserve it. “By the middle of the sixteenth century peers and gentry were at last convinced both by the propaganda of the humanists and by the evident success in life of those with education, to bestir themselves and get some professional training.” (CA 676) In this, the greatest architect was William Cecil. Others had envisioned an aristocracy as learned as the sons of grocers and glovers; he oversaw.

“Lord Burghley was indeed the key figure in the transformation of the education of the aristocracy, and he may thus claim to have done more in the long run to preserve the class than any other man. ... Upon one and all he poured out his passion for learning as the pathway to virtue, godliness, and capacity for high office, and if his efforts were not crowned with success he felt them to deserve, at least he had created a fashion for a bookish education.” (CA 679)

Fellow Commoners

“They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.”—Love's Labours Lost V.i

So what did these peers and heirs actually do at Oxford and Cambridge? Essentially—whatever else they did—they dined at high table with the Fellows. That privilege defined them: at many colleges of both Universities, they were called “Fellow-Commoners.” In return, the Fellows got to sit in the penumbra of the lordlings’ light. With earls, they dined like earls (and doubtless added some excellent vintage to the college cellars.) At some colleges, gentry students were expected to present a handsome piece of silver—a bowl or cup or standing salt—for the use of the high table. They paid handsome fees as well: this was a great era of expansion at the universities, with an outburst of new buildings.

Queens' Hall

Money draws money; status draws aspirants; crowds of adolescent boys lead to trouble.

The Universities were bursting with young men who came “not so much with the intention of eventual graduation, but to profit from unofficial contacts and extra-curricular activities, and who then went on for a year or so to an Inn of Court in London. These lay students, their servants, and the tailors, fencing-masters, tennis-court-keepers, riding-masters and the like, who came to profit from them, put very great pressure on living accommodation and food-supplies in the town and created serious problems of public order. This was a period when town-gown relationships were very severely strained.”

“The very presence of these students had ... disruptive effects on university life ... They also created new problems of social control.” (HUC 132) Being older than Bulbeck (who entered as an impubes), they had more scope for riot. They broke other things than window-glass. 5

But what did they learn?

As much as they cared to or as little as they dared. Less than the foundation scholars; less than the ordinary commoners (Oxford) and pensioners (Cambridge), who paid tuition; less than the sizars who waited on the rest, scraping plates for the chance to study: all those worked toward the degrees they needed to take pulpits. They studied to advance themselves. But “fellow-commoners ... were generally exempted from the regular academic obligations, such as college lectures and many of the college exercises. ... At Queens’”—Viscount Bulbeck’s college—“they were spared even that [minimum]: it was said that no fellow-commoner declaimed in the chapel there before 1782.” (HQC 207)

No wonder that by 1811, “fellow-commoner” was Cambridge slang for an empty bottle.

Queens' Library

At first—in Bulbeck’s time—the Universities had no idea what to do with these well-bred puppies. “Initially gentlemen’s sons were sent up very young, sometimes accompanied by their own tutors, but as the schools developed younger entrants became rarer and college tutors seemed adequate.” (ESTE 358) Viscount Bulbeck was eight when he matriculated. Oxfordians are thrilled, imagining a marvellous precocity, an infant Hamlet at Wittenberg. But only a handful of peers had preceeded him at Cambridge. There was no set pattern to follow, no entrance requirements, and no curriculum for special students. Quite probably, the little viscount would have come up with his tutor, Thomas Fowle, to supervise him. (Fowle was salaried that year; I doubt he was paid to do nothing.) Edward would have continued with his lessons (Latin grammar, the globes), perhaps receiving a little extra tuition from a don; but his presence at Queens’ seems almost ceremonial, a ritual immersion in the Cam. Of course, he would have had to dine with the Fellows, sit in their common room, a child among preoccupied adults. No wonder he broke windows!

With time and trial, eventually “there was created a diverse ‘informal curriculum’ for those aristocratic students who did not need to study in order to take a degree and to pursue a career.” (HUC 133). Under direction, they could study à la carte: taste the Greek and Latin classics, rhetoric, mathematics, and theology. A pattern emerged. “Some time at the inns of court after perhaps a year or so at an Oxford or Cambridge college—an adaptation for amateurs of what had been, for such as Cecil, a serious educational course—became a recognized pattern of education for the gentleman of standing.” (ESTE 356) The universities “still had something to offer to young gentlemen who did not seek a degree or intend to enter a profession; indeed they increasingly provided a useful bridge between schooling and the inns of court or travel, or where these were not contemplated themselves acted as finishing schools.” (ESTE 358)

Old Court

Many of these fellow commoners did not matriculate and very few took degrees. At Cambridge, "the proportion of students who failed to graduate varied according to their social class. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries as many as three quarters of the fellow-commoners may not have taken a degree,” not even a fil. nob. (HQC 104). Of the 71 peers and heirs male (pre-1603 creations) who matriculated at Oxford or Cambridge between 1550-1639 (CA 792), I have found just four who took BAs.

What those young gentlemen—the whelps of privilege—took away with them depended on themselves. “Some aristocratic students evidently got the scholarly bit between their teeth, and pursued elements of the reading and exercises intended for aspiring clerics.” (HUC 136) On the other hand, “Many of the offspring of the aristocracy viewed their time at the university as a purgatorial withholding from the excitement afoot elsewhere.” (HUC 138)

Nowell, Nowell

BattingOxfordians fantasize that their godling Earl was a supernova of precocious learning: that at twelve and thirteen he was working on a formal translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with (or even instead of) his uncle Arthur Golding; that he learned not only Latin and French, but Greek, Hebrew, even Anglo-Saxon. After all, he was being taught by the antiquary Laurence Nowell, 6  the compiler of the first Old English dictionary, who possessed the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf.

Yet Oxford’s last tutor left him at thirteen, without regrets, without a word of praise. As Nowell wrote Cecil in June 1563, he felt he could better serve his patron and his country as a mapmaker. “But ... I feared that I might seem to neglect or avoid dealing with the charge [cura] that you had placed upon me.” That charge was Oxford. Cura can also mean “trouble” or “anxiety.” Here Nowell—a skillful Latinist—may or may not be implying that his post is stressful or unpleasant.  The word is deftly ambiguous: maybe neutral, maybe not, as read. The verb detrectare (to shirk, evade) also suggests that his employment is no bed of roses: it's often used of military duty or a fight.  One does not evade a pleasure.

He goes on, “[But] since on the one hand [cum neque] I see that those persons [the previous mapmakers] have not yet brought forth anything worthy of so great and so long a period of waiting, and [since on the other hand] I readily perceive that my labors for the Earl of Oxford will not by any means be required for much longer, I have put my trust in your accustomed goodness and humane conduct toward me, and not hesitated to let you know what is in my mind.” 7 The Earl is a subordinate clause here, one reason why Nowell hopes to be released. Note the parallel construction pointing out the waste of time: diuturna ... diu; since I see ... since I perceive. Both endeavors have failed. Nowell is exquisitely polite, but what he's saying is: Since these drones are getting nowhere with the maps, and since I’m getting nowhere with the Earl, I'm asking: could you please give me work that isn't futile? Work these layabouts aren't doing, work I really want to do.

The Oxford cult believes that Nowell had nothing more to teach the Earl because the pupil had outstripped his tutor. Nowell’s grammar belies them. So, in its contrary way, does the Earl's. Besides, what teacher finds a brilliant student burdensome? No, as tactfully as possible, Nowell’s begging off a thankless task. He would not be replaced.

We have the order for his pupil's studies, which Cecil drew up for him: besides Latin for two hours a day, a quarter (or less) of what a boy in grammar school would do, he learned French, penmanship, cosmography (the use of maps), and dancing. Impressive, to some modern eyes: not to an Elizabethan’s. His Latin, as preserved in letters, is woefully botched. His penmanship is fair enough. His French—a schoolroom exercise survives—is unremarkable.  In 1563, probably after Nowell had stepped down, Cecil wrote Sir Thomas Smith in search of a riding-master. He was also "desirous to have an honest Qualified French-man to attend upon [Oxford], and the other Earl, for the Exercise and Speech of the Tongue.” Still paired with the amiable Rutland. You’d think the boy Montaigne would have outstripped his unexceptional agemate by then.

Wards Rewarded

In fact, even among Burghley’s wards, Oxford was distinctly C-stream.

For his own son Robert, Lord Burghley set a far more arduous program. The boy was taught Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, together with music, mathematics, and cosmography.

Young Cecil’s agemate Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex (1565–1601) was likewise scholarly. “According to a report of November 1576, Essex showed great promise: ‘he can expresse his mind in Latin & French as well as in Englishe, verie curteus and modest, rather disposed to heare than to aunswer, given greatly to learning...’”8 Compare that evaluation, if you will, with Nowell’s letter of resignation. Was there nothing he could find to praise in his late pupil? Penmanship? At twelve, Essex went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a nobleman’s M.A. “Essex’s studies at Cambridge nourished his propensity towards ‘bookishnesse’ ... and made him almost as eager for the company of scholars as for the company of soldiers.”

At the age of twelve in the autumn of 1585, Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton was admitted to St John’s College, Cambridge, where his education “focused on theology, ethics, and the oral and written presentation of arguments.” Two of his Latin themes, written at thirteen, survive. “He quotes Cicero on youth’s need for more freedom and on the wisdom of letting desire and passion sometimes ‘triumph over reason.’” Set that side by side with Oxford’s schoolboy French: yet again, de Vere lags.

Having received his nobleman’s MA at sixteen, in 1589 Southampton was admitted at Gray’s Inn. That doesn’t mean he studied there. “The inns of court were filled with a good many idle, fashionable young men concerned with dancing, fencing, or the theatre, rather than with legal statutes; and the comely earl hardly had much time for the law himself. Significantly, he can be traced at Gray’s Inn at a holiday time when skits, satires, and plays were performed, but there is little sign that he acquired much technical knowledge of litigation.” Here at last, Oxford draws even with another ward of Cecil’s: it’s unlikely that either read much law.

Lastly, Roger Manners, fifth earl of Rutland (1576–1612) studied at Cambridge from late 1587 until sometime in the 1590s, following a particular master from Queens’ College to Corpus Christi College. The ODNB says that “He was created MA in February 1595, as part of a grand spectacle at Cambridge which was stage-managed by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex.” But the Oxford University register states: “M.A. from Corpus Christi Coll., Cambridge, 20 Feb., 1595, incorporated [at Oxford] 10 July, 1598.” That is, Oxford accepted his Cambridge degree as equivalent to one of theirs. Perhaps it was fil. nob. after all? Manners matriculated at Padua University in 1596, but falling dangerously ill, did not go on with his studies there. Oxford’s researches in Italy were rather less cerebral.

Academically, these three royal wards and earls—Oxford’s peers—simply wipe the floor with him; but Robert Cecil, as Nelson writes, “would outstrip every one of Cecil’s wards.” (Monstrous Adversary 35)


But Cecil’s younger royal wards were not the only academic stars at court. It was an age of learning, though unevenly distributed. There were, of course, other C+ Augustus courtiers like Oxford and the elder Rutland, who were (perhaps) briefly at one of the universities and later created MA at a royal whim. Take Edward Seymour, Viscount Beauchamp (1561–1612), who “matriculated from Magdalen College, Oxford, and spent some time studying there, but from correspondence ... it appears he was a poor student and he certainly did not graduate.” Or William Knollys, first earl of Banbury (c.1545–1632). “In his youth his parents took great care of his education: he was first tutored by Julins Palmer, who was burnt as a heretic in 1556, and then studied at Eton College (1560).” (I love the off-handedness of that.) The rest is commonplace: Magdalen College, Oxford; Middle Temple in 1565. Long afterward, created MA.


Others, like Robert Dudley, never went to university: it wasn’t yet the fashion in his youth. Leicester was no fool: Roger Ascham “teased him about giving up Cicero for Euclid. ... He both spoke and wrote Italian fluently, could read Latin and French and possibly speak Latin, and retained an interest in mathematics, engineering, and navigation throughout his life.”

Searching the ODNB, I found more than a handful of 16th century noblemen who proceeded MA, or would have, if they'd lived. All of these were better educated than the Earl of Oxford.

The most pathetic of these stories is of Henry Brandon (1535–1551) and Charles Brandon (1537/8–1551), successively second and third dukes of Suffolk. They were “set to study at court with Prince Edward” and afterward enrolled at St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1549; but sadly, both died in 1551, within half an hour of each other, like children in a ballad. “Three dozen ... Cambridge and Oxford scholars praised their learning, piety, and virtues unstintingly and lamented their passing in a volume of Latin and Greek verse and prose, published in 1551. Wilson, who had tutored them, also chose them as the subjects of his exemplary oration of praise in The Arte of Rhetorique (1553). Even allowing for the conventions of such works it seems that they were young men of considerable promise whose loss was keenly felt.”

Nowell SelfieSet these encomia against Nowell’s tactful bowing-out. Yes, death is a great ennobler—but was there nothing in Cecil’s ward that he could find to praise?

Just among peers born in the decade after Oxford, I find:

William Bourchier, third earl of Bath (1557–1623): Attended schools at Bury St Edmunds and Ely. Admitted to Cambridge University (Corpus Christi and Gonville and Caius Colleges) in 1573 and graduated there in 1577.

Philip Howard, thirteenth earl of Arundel (1557–1595): St John’s College, Cambridge, proceeded MA in November 1576.

Thomas Sackville, second earl of Dorset (1560/61–1609): Matriculated from Hart Hall, Oxford, in December 1576, aged fifteen, and graduated BA and MA on 3 June 1579.

George Clifford, third earl of Cumberland (1558–1605), courtier and privateer. “In 1571 he became a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, with the master and future archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, as his tutor. According to his daughter Anne Clifford, who was his first biographer”—hey, none of Oxford’s daughters paid him that respect—“it was his love of mathematics which led him to take an interest in navigation. Having graduated MA at Cambridge in 1576, he may also have undertaken a more informal course of study at Oxford.”

Others, somewhat less well born than Oxford, though gentry still, did brilliantly.

Francis Bacon (1561–1626), not yet a Viscount, and his brother Anthony (1558-1601) also read with Whitgift. He went up to Trinity at just twelve, and among the books his tutor purchased for the brothers were “the Iliad, Plato and Aristotle, ‘tullies workes’ (perhaps Cicero’s philosophical works and letters), Cicero’s rhetorical works, Demosthenes’ Orations, Hermogenes’ Ars rhetorica in a facing-page Greek and Latin edition, as well as the histories of Livy, Sallust, and Xenophon.”

He wasn’t Shakespeare either.

Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618), who would be formidably learned, struggled financially to stay at Oxford. “Thomas Child of Worcestershire told John Aubrey that Ralegh, pressed for money, ‘borrowed a gowne of him when he was at Oxford … which he never restored, nor money for it’ (Brief Lives, 2.179).”

Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586): Shrewsbury School, 1564. Gray’s Inn at twelve, in 1567. Christ Church, Oxford, 1568, and perhaps Cambridge, though he never took a degree at either university. His three earliest surviving letters are to Cecil, from Oxford.

Sir John Harington (bap. 1560, d. 1612) was another promising young scholar advised by William Cecil. “By 1570 he was at Eton College, where he and his schoolfellows translated into Latin the story of Elizabeth’s sufferings during the reign of Mary Tudor, from Foxe’s book of martyrs; the resulting volume, no longer extant, was presented to the queen. The queen sent ‘Boye Iacke’ a copy of her 1576 end-of-session speech to parliament defending her right to celibacy. ... Harington matriculated at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1576, graduated BA in 1578, and proceeded MA in 1581.”

In such company, Oxford seems barely literate. But one must keep up appearances. “After about 1550 … it became increasingly fashionable for sons of gentry, and even some sons of noblemen, to pass on to the universities.” In Stone’s tables, you can trace the fashion as it peaked and passed: for old-created peers, matriculations were at their height in the 1570s, admissions to the Inns of Court, in the 1580s. By 1600, they were all onto Grand Tours. (CA 792-3). Academics were the style of Oxford’s youth, part of his self-definition. It was in to be “learned,” a generational marker. In other centuries, the young of the leisured classes would see themselves as “sentimental” or “intense” or “cool” or “bright.” Noblesse oblige. If weren’t for Cecil, and the Zeitgeist, and the social pressure, Oxford might have been content to be a fop and a scribbler, vaguely artistic, good at tilting and dancing.


“But, but ... Lawrence Nowell!” sputter the Oxfordians.  "Sir Thomas Smith!"

Sorry, but privilege is not achievement. The greatest scholar cannot work miracles with a recalcitrant or less-than-brilliant pupil. Take for example two pairs of brothers, silk purse and sow’s ear.

Henry Howard, earl of Northampton (1540–1614) ... and his elder brother Thomas, duke of Norfolk (1538–1572) were tutored together by the distinguished humanist Hadrianus Junius,”a scholar of European reputation.” He “left the family service in 1547.” He was followed by the protestant martyrologist John Foxe. So far their nurture was identical: but the brothers were not of the same stuff.

“At Queen Elizabeth’s expense [Henry] was educated at King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied the classics and graduated MA in 1566; he also read civil law at Trinity Hall. He incorporated MA at Oxford in 1568, but remained at Cambridge as reader in rhetoric until at least 1569, the only nobleman to teach at either university in the Tudor and early Stuart periods.”

On the other hand, “despite a succession of tutors Thomas professed himself ‘ashamed of my unskilfulness’ in Latin, and early in the next reign he had to ask Secretary Cecil to negotiate with the Spanish ambassador ‘because his own Latin tongue was not ready.’ Such shortcomings were no impediment to a great peer.”


Or take the “incomparable pair of brethren,” the Herberts, sons of the great Countess of Pembroke, born into a family steeped in literature and learning. Both were educated at home by their brilliant, bluestocking mother, then under the tutelage of Hugh Sanford, and later Samuel Daniel, himself a poet of some renown.

But temperamentally, the brothers were unlike. The elder, William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke (1580–1630) was a passionate reader, a joy to his teachers. “Their influence, as well as the example of his mother and Sidney uncles, bred a lifelong appreciation for literature and the arts in the young man. ... Ultimately his education would make him the ‘greatest Maecenas to learned men of any peer of his time, or since’ (Brennan, 150).”

But the younger boy, Philip, was unscholarly. Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, later wrote that the young Philip Herbert “pretended to no other qualifications than to understand horses and dogs very well.” In John Aubrey’s words, Pembroke “did not delight in books, or poetry.”

Chalk and cheese.

On 9 March 1593, both brothers matriculated at New College, Oxford. William stayed three years, studying. Though he left without a degree, his affection for the university endured throughout his life. He loved the company of scholars.

Philip was another kettle of fish. Admitted at the tender age of nine, he only stayed at the university for three or four months.

Ironically, it was the brother who fled Oxford who would return as a chancellor of that university. His lack of scholarly—well, anything—inspired merciless lampoons. In a mock speech, he is made to say: “I love the Bible, though I seldome use it; I say I love it … I can love it though I cannot read it”; and “my name may be French, for I cannot spell English.” Anthony Wood later wrote that Pembroke was “so foul-mouthed and so eloquent in swearing that he was thought more fit to preside over a Bedlam than a learned academy.”

Like Oxford, whose daughter he would marry, Pembroke was sent up to university extremely young and stayed very briefly. Could this be what was done with the academically unthriving? Get the thing over with? Like Oxford and Rutland, he was one of a pair of quasi-brothers created Masters of Arts at the same occasion, not for their learning, but by virtue of their birth. In 1564, Oxford and Rutland both were royal wards. In 1605, Pembroke was paired with his new brother-in-law, Oxford’s son.

Henry de Vere, eighteenth earl of Oxford (1593–1625), nobleman and soldier, “was admitted to the Middle Temple in November 1604, and awarded an MA degree at Oxford on 30 August 1605 during a royal visit there. It seems unlikely that the earl absorbed much learning at either place, however, preferring what his mother described in 1611 as ‘evil courses.’” His honors came with his earldom, like robes: he had only to assume. Like his father’s, his MA was purely ceremonial. But this time there was no pretense of schooling: they cut straight to the credits.


Oxfordians are adamant: only someone with their earl’s exquisite, deep deep learning could have written Shakespeare.

Here’s Greg Koch, pontificating ex cathedra:

“De Vere was taught privately like a prince. He was never registered at University. He didn’t ’matriculate’ as the de Vere Society claims. He had the privileges of a prince’s education. Access to any research and to everyone at Cam & Oxford.”

(Access to research? On what? Cruxes in Aramaic? And which play would that be?)

Their absolute assurance is belied on both sides. Oxford, as we have seen, was “learned” only by convention. Shakespeare the writer, as any fule kno, was unlearned by the standards of his time. Jonson and Beaumont said so plainly; the university wits deplored and envied; and the chorus swelled—how did he do that?—until the poet’s image had become a sort of holy fool.

Did Shakespeare need a university degree?

Does a fish need a bicycle?

There is a style of Oxfordian argument that I call “Bumblebees can’t fly.” Their wings are too stubby, their bodies too ungainly. Dragonflies are prettier. Shakespeareans just point. “Look. There he goes.”

Shakespeare being himself, he had exactly the education needed to write Shakespeare.

All but certainly, Will studied at the Stratford grammar school, which of kind would have offered a splendid training in rhetoric: scales and exercises for the aspiring writer. Will would have read, perhaps memorized Ovid; set books would have included Virgil and Terence, Plautus and Seneca, Cicero and Horace. Over and again, he would have translated passages from Latin into English, from English into his own Latin, noting closely how the languages worked, what figures had been used and how. What better way to feel the play and contrast of the Latinate and Saxon in his native English? He would use that: "The multudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red." His master would have set him exercises in prosopopeia, speaking in another’s voice: a ghost's, a goddess's, a king's. Write me a lament of Dido’s, or an argument for Brutus. Quite likely, Will and his schoolmates would have acted Latin plays. You can’t do that alone with a tutor. Even if his schooldays had ended at thirteen, like Oxford’s, Will would have had at least four times as many hours of intensive Latin.

After that? He went on learning. Shakespeare was an intellectual Autolycus, “a snapper up of unconsidered trifles.“ As Holger Syme writes, “he had the London of 1600, which was not unlike a small Internet you could walk around in.”9

And above all, Shakespeare had the world of theatre for a workshop. As a player-poet in a company of fellows, men and boys with whom he acted; as a poet with a stage— with several stages—he was peerless. He wrote for those known voices, for that space and this, for living audiences. The Globe was his university.

Bibliography & Notes

Morgan, Victor, A History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Twigg, John. A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge, 1448-1986 (Woodbridge, Suffolk; Wolfeboro, NH : Boydell Press, 1987)
Simon, Joan Education and Society in Tudor England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967)
Stone, Lawrence, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979)
Strype, John, The Life of the Learned Sir Thomas Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1820)
Winstanley, D.A Unreformed Cambridge (CUP, 1935)

  1. There’s that number again!
  2. Cambridge notes laconically: “Matric. Fell.-Com. from Queens’ College 1558:10MT [Michaelmas Term]. ... Migrated to St John’s College.” What, Queens’ ran out of windows?
  3. John Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, xxvii. Yes, that Venn, of the diagrams.
  4. “A commencement held on the occasion of a royal visit, characterised, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by the conferring of mandate degrees on a huge number of persons at a moment’s notice.”
  5. Some things never change. At Merton College, Oxford in the 1870s, it had become “the habit of the idle to smash the windows of the new buildings with stones or with small loaves left over from meals.” Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (London: Macmillan, 1977), 11.
  6. There were two Laurence Nowells, much confused: the Dean of Lichfield (c. 1516-1576), and his younger cousin (1530-c.1570). One was an antiquary, cartographer, and Anglo-Saxonist, the owner of the codex containing the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf: that man was Oxford’s tutor. Following earlier scholarship, Alan Nelson identifies him as the older man, the Dean; but their ODNB biographer, Retha M. Warnicke, confirms him as the younger.
  7. My thanks to Dr. H. Schreiberg and P. Sophia for translation and expert close reading of the Latin text: Valde etenim timebam ne quam mihi imposueras curam aut detrectare aut negligere videri possem. Verum cum neque illos adhuc tanta et tam diuturna expectatione dignum quicquid edidisse videam : et meam operam haud fore diu Oxoniensi Comiti necessariam facile intelligam ; tuae in me solitae bonitati et humanitati confisus, hujus mei animi te certiorem reddere non dubitavi.  PS notes:  “It’s a classic causal use of cum + subjunctive”:  videam ... intelligam instead of indicative video ... intellego.
  8. All quotations henceforth from the ODNB, unless otherwise noted
  9. Here: Now go read his brilliant “Mythbusting” essays: “The Fantasy of the Unsurpassed Vocabulary”:; and, “The Fantasy of Astonishing Erudition”:

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