Victoria Ward on an earl in search of the real Bard
Click to follow
The Earl of Burford, heir to the Duke of St Albans, is convinced that his direct ancestor is the real author of Shakespeare's plays. He's not alone.

Charles Buford is the spokesman for the Shakespeare Oxford society - an increasingly popular American group devoted to proving that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, did the work while the Bard got all credit.

The Stratford man, Burford & Co argue, simply did not have the background and learning. Both his parents and his children were illiterate. How could he, asks Burford, have had access to the courtly and political circles that the real Shakespeare so obviously was privy to. Oxford, on the other hand, fits the bill perfectly.

The theory is not new and like its rivals, the Baconian and Marlovian theories, has been largely pooh-poohed by the British academic establishment. But in America, according to Burford, it is now gathering serious ground. He makes no bones about the factthat this is largely due to his family connections. "Because of my title I got access to speaking venues that the society, without me, would not have got," he says.

Yet, from the British perspective, the most intriguing thing about Burford, is not, as he would wish, the validity of his unorthodox theory, but the sheer oddity that he, as one of the youngest (29) and noblest of Britain's aristocracy should devote his life to pumping an obscure academic theory around America. No less intriguing is his claim that he lives off the paltry salary he makes as a lecturer. (Apparently his own family has suffered financial difficulties, but to judge from the smart furnishingsof his grandmother's house in Holland Park, they are not exactly reduced to poverty.) "I do not make much money out of it," he says. "Quite often I speak for free."

"Yes, people do think I'm mad," he laughs. "But the Oxford theory really is gaining ground. Three books have been written about it this year alone. And I've had huge access to the schools in America. As a result, the authorship question is now being taught there. They are the next generation of undergraduates, so I'm confident that in time, change will take place. It's happening already - Edward de Vere's name crops up all over the States. And my parents no longer think I'm so dotty."

His grandfather was president of the Shakespeare Authorship Society, an amateur debating body set up in 1921. "He inspired me," says Burford, "but it wasn't until my late teens, when a godmother sent me a book by Thomas Looney (pronounced Lowney) which profiled Oxford, that I really concentrated on the idea that he was Shakespeare."

At Oxford University, where he read Russian, he tried desperately to stir up debate. To no avail. "I got Enoch Powell (an Oxfordian) and Lord Dacre (an anti-Stratfordian) to come and speak," he explains, "but no one from either the History or English faculties would speak in support of the Stratford man. That is what annoys me about academics; they are not interested in debating any ideas that are not their own."