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Earl of Oxford: A Goodly Manor For A Song

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

This ByrdStory comes from someone with an unusually close historical and musical connection to the composer.

The description for ByrdStories says anecdotes, thoughts, or connections with William Byrd’s music. Personal stories. Here’s one: I knew him. I am Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. I lived, as Byrd did, during the reign of the first Elizabeth. In my case, 1550-1604. Will was about a decade older.

We met toward the end of 1572. He was new at the Chapel Royal, I was new at the royal court, a young blood enjoying my salad days in Elizabeth’s favour. I was a competent amateur musician (not in Will’s league, but who was?) and was much involved in supplying the court with theatrical entertainments. Our paths were bound to cross.

Will was a rare bird (sorry), a recusant Catholic who managed to remain in Elizabeth’s good graces. He got into a couple of scrapes and paid fines for non-attendance, but he had the sense and the tact to get along with the Protestants in his profession, enabling Elizabeth to look through her fingers because of his irreplaceable skill as a composer. To her he was a stiff Papist and a good subject at a time when it was nigh on impossible to be both. It’s my feeling that he chose Rome because Rome saw music as a gift given to (and by) God, not as a distraction from the divine.

Elizabeth aided Will by granting him, jointly with old Tallis, a monopoly patent on printed music. I aided him too. In 1573 I arranged to give him the lease of one of my manors, Battles Hall in Essex, once my uncle Aubrey was done living there. Aubrey died a few years later, but things got messy. In early 1580 (forgive my fuzzy dates) Will was sued by a churl who swore that Will had promised to transfer the lease to him, whereas Will swore that he had promised it to his brother John. Will lost the suit and would have faced financial ruin had I not agreed to sell the manor outright to John, for much less than it was worth. I couldn't stomach the thought of Will reduced to feeding his family by some downmarket waste of his extraordinary talent. So he survived the battle, the churl got nothing but a lawyer’s bill, and John Byrd got a knockdown price on Battles Hall and its thousand acres.

I never saw any of the money (another story, never mind) but I did get a song, and a line to use in one of my courtly entertainments.

From All’s Well That Ends Well, Act III, Scene 2:

Clown (jester to the Countess):

By my troth I take my young lord to be a very melancholy man.

Countess (the young lord's mother):

By what observance, I pray you?


Why he will look upon his boot and sing,

Mend the ruff and sing,

Ask questions and sing,

Pick his teeth and sing.

I know a man that had this trick of melancholy

Sold a goodly manor for a song.

The song was The Earl of Oxford’s March, sometimes called The March Before The Battle. Will wrote it in the mid 1580s (another fuzzy date) to thank me for the outcome of the Battle of Battles Hall. It was well suited to England’s martial mood as the realm prepared to resist the looming Armada. The march was included in My Ladye Nevells Booke in 1591. Here are the first five bars.

A manuscript of ‘the marche before the ‘battell’
©The British Library Board

My song was popular when it was new, and it still is. YouTube has lots of arrangements and performances. Here are some of them in a playlist.

The song was Will’s expression of gratitude. The line in All’s Well was my acknowledgement. The artist is always revealed in the art.

♪ ♫ ♪ ♫ ♪ ♫ ♪ ♫ ♪

To learn more about who I am and why I scribble online four centuries after my demise, visit my blog at

All’s Well That Ends Well is in the public domain

Other text ©2023 edevere17 all rights reserved

Posted here by permission


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