(In Modern English)
To my Bess:
Sweetheart I doubt not but you shall hear ere my letter come to you of the misfortune of your friends, be not too apprehensive of it, for God’s will must be done, & what is allotted to us by destiny cannot bee avoided; believe that in this time there is nothing can so much comfort me as to think you are well & take patiently what hath happened, & contrarywise I shall live in torment if I find you vexed for my cause, doubt not but I shall do well & please yourself with assurance that I shall ever remain
Your affectionate husband
This passionate letter most likely never made it to its addressee. It was written by Southampton to his wife either while he was temporarily detained at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace at Lambeth, or after he had been transferred to his prison chambers within the Tower.
Mercifully, Southampton’s execution day never came. There are several possible reasons why Robert Cecil had Southampton’s sentence commuted from execution to life imprisonment. Public sentiment leaned toward the side of Essex and his followers, especially after the botched-up beheading; therefore, another execution could potentially create a hostile environment for Elizabeth’s government.
One factor that may have weighed heavily on Cecil’s conscience is mentioned in an excerpt from the desperate letter written to Cecil by Southampton’s mother, Mary:
It appeared to me many times his earnest desire to recover her Majesty’s favour, his doleful discontented behaviour when he could not obtain it, how apt despair made him at length to receive evil counsel and follow such company…
Akrigg points out: “If Queen Elizabeth had not so relentlessly maintained her dislike of Southampton, denying him access to her Court, and refusing him from the generalship of the horse in Ireland and then the governorship of Connaught, Southampton might never have turned to treason” (129).
The sickly earl remained imprisoned in the Tower for over two years. When Elizabeth I died on March 24, 1603, James VI of Scotland peacefully ascended the throne of England.
As mentioned in a previous post, Essex and Southampton had championed James’ right to succession. So, one of his first acts as England’s king was to send forth orders from his castle at Edinburgh for Southampton’s release.
On April 10, 1603, Henry Wriothesley was given a chance to start anew with his title and estate restored to him.
Months later, Southampton was installed into the order of the Knights of the Garter, appointed to the Privy Council, and the sweet wine profits that had once been granted to Essex, were transferred to him. Things were looking hopeful for Southampton with a new sovereign on the throne.
Sadly though, as time passed, the headstrong earl would fall out of James’ favor, too. But I will take a breather from the history lessons for now.
As promised, in an upcoming post, we will briefly examine some controversial theories that suggest a very intimate connection between Southampton and Shakespeare.
Hint: If you’ve seen the 2011 Roland Emmerich film Anonymous, you’ll know where I’m heading!
On February 9, 1601, at 3:00 AM, Essex, Southampton, and their chief supporters were arrested and taken to the Tower.
Indictments were produced on the 17th of February at Westminster Hall “charging Essex with an attempt to usurp the crown, and Essex, Southampton, Rutland and Sandys with having conspired to depose and slay the Queen and to subvert the government” (Akrigg 121).
After a trial before their peers, the Lord High Steward passed the following brutal sentence:
…you both shall be led from hence to the place from whence you came, and there remain during her Majesty’s pleasure; from thence to be drawn upon a hurdle through the midst of the City, and so to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck and taken down alive, –your bodies to be opened, and your bowels taken out and burned before your face; your bodies to be quartered, –your heads and quarter to be disposed of at her Majesty’s pleasure, and so God have mercy on your souls. (Jardine, Criminal Trials, I, 363-5)
Two days after his conviction, Essex requested to meet with Sir Robert Cecil and other officials. According to records, Essex admitted that he and his followers had planned to force their way into the Queen’s presence, “and use her authority to change the government and call a Parliament, condemning their opponents for misgoverning the state” (as per a letter from Cecil to Mountjoy dated February 26, 1601).
Right up to the day of his death, Essex insisted he “never intended violence of death for the Queen” (Akrigg).
During this meeting, Essex also pleaded that his execution be made private, and his request was granted.
In the early morning hours of February 25, 1601, in the presence of about a hundred gentlemen and nobles,
Robert Devereaux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, was the last person executed by beheading on Tower Green. His final words were reportedly:
…this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many have for love of me been drawn to offend God, to offend their Sovereign, to offend the world. (Jardine, Criminal Trials, I, 378)
“Southampton’s first love came in the shape of a man;
his heart had no room as yet for love of woman” (Stopes 35).
Southampton, according to Stopes, believed that Robert Devereaux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, represented the “ideal knight.” The young earl idolized Essex and eventually became his friend.
It was through this connection to Essex that Southampton believed he would achieve his ambitions of military glory and the Queen’s favor. Unfortunately, the exact opposite scenario would come true.
As Akrigg details in the chapter entitled “Season of Discontent” in Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, around the time that the portrait above was painted, Essex was on the verge of bankruptcy.
When in 1600, Elizabeth did not renew his grant to receive “duties levied on all the sweet wines entering England,” (107), he became desperate. Despite several attempts to humble himself before the Queen, he remained ostracized from her presence. He believed that his enemies at Court were conspiring against him.
Southampton not only sympathized with Essex, but followed him every step of the way down the road of rebellion:
- He assisted in drafting Essex’s letter to King James of Scotland that detailed the corrupt practices of Cecil and his unscrupulous followers and declared that Essex had hoped to “stop the malice, the wickedness and madness of these men, and to relieve my poor country that groans under her burthen” (Akrigg 110). Essex had believed James VI of Scotland to be the proper heir to the aging Elizabeth’s throne.
- It is documented in court records from the Essex trial, that Sir Charles Percy, one of Essex’s friends, had commissioned the staging of Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe Theater on February 7, 1601, the evening prior to the uprising. As we know, this play highlights the deposition of the unpopular king. (Note: Although it is unknown if the play as we know it today, including the deposition scene, was the version performed on that particular evening in 1601.)
- On Sunday, February 8, when four emissaries of the Court were sent to Essex House to hear Essex’s complaints and learn why he was assembling forces, they were taken prisoner by Essex, Southampton, and other followers.
- Southampton, along with two other earls (Rutland and Bedford) and approximately 150 men, left with Essex to seek out more supporters and acquire firearms, to seize Whitehall Court.
- After failing to garner a mob of Londoners, the earls retreated back to Essex House in hopes of using their hostages to force the Queen to negotiate. However, the hostages had already been transferred by Sir Ferdinando Gorges to “secure the best terms he could before any blood was shed” (Akrigg 116).
- When the assault upon Essex House was underway, Southampton was said to have come out onto the roof and told Sir Robert Sidney, a long friend of Essex and his supporters sent to summon a parley, that “Essex and the rest of them had taken up arms only to defend themselves from their enemies, and that they meant no harm to the Queen” (Akrigg 117-18).
- Sidney told Southampton there would be no negotiations and that he should be reminded that Essex House could not withstand cannon fire. In a final attempt at rebellious glory, Southampton reportedly declared: “Let his Lordship doe his pleasure, wee purpose not to yield without hostages, for will rather make choice to dye like men with our swords in our hands, then goe ten days hence to end our lives upon a scaffold” (Stopes 193).
Due to the presence of females still remaining within the walls of Essex House, including Essex’s wife and sister, the dispirited earls eventually yielded to their captors, unwilling to take innocent bystanders down with them in their blaze of glory.
Under the following three conditions,
- Civil treatment of Essex and his friends by the Lord Admiral
- A fair and impartial trial for the rebels
- That Essex be allowed the spiritual guidance of Ashton, Essex’s trusted clergyman
the rebels surrendered and, as Stopes noted in her book, “the Queen slept” (195).
These words form the dedication page of Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis. The poem in its entirety can be found on the following link: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/Poetry/VenusAndAdonis.html
In The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s Patron, biographer Charlotte Carmichael Stopes writes:
In that very month of April, on the 18th day, something happened which has done more than anything else to keep the Earl of Southampton in memory.
Yet a commonplace enough event it was the registration of a book in the Stationers’ Registers. But the name of the book was Venus and Adonis the name of the author was William Shakespeare, the name of the printer was Richard Field, the Stratford friend of the poet, and it was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton dedicated timidly, because the poet did not know how the public would take his venture, and he wanted to leave his patron as free as possible to slip out, should the venture prove a failure.
It happens that the first preserved fragment of Shakespeare’s prose writing is this dedication.
According to Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Venus and Adonis is categorized as a minor epic: “characters in a minor epic usually come from the periphery of myth or legend; its interest is in eroticism, sophistication, and wit” (http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=2889).
As pointed out by G.P.V. Akrigg in Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, certain themes found in this poem are echoed in the Procreation Sonnets. One example is as follows:
Beauty within itself should not be wasted.
Fair flowers that are not gathered in their prime
Rot and consume themselves in little time. (Venus & Adonis, lines 130-132)
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die… (Sonnet 1)
With all this in mind, we must consider that when this erotic piece of poetry was published in 1593, Henry Wriothesley was ensnared in a betrothal arrangement initiated by the Lord Burghley, William Cecil, who wished to have his ward marry the Lady Elizabeth de Vere, Cecil’s granddaughter and the eldest daughter of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
In choosing Wriothesley as his dedicatee, the poet was most likely making a not-so-subtle commentary on the young earl’s private life. There was much at stake for Wriothesley in this period of his life, and in refusing to marry Lady Elizabeth, he subsequently alienated himself from both Cecil and the Queen.
On May 9th, 1594, The Rape of Lucrece was entered into the Stationers’ Register, and published shortly thereafter. This poem can be found here: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/Poetry/RapeOfLucrece.html
Again, Shakespeare chose to dedicate his work to the Earl of Southampton.
This poem evokes a grimmer tone than that of Venus and Adonis. According to Akrigg, “Shakespeare may have begun by pandering a bit to Southampton’s taste for erotica but now, secure in his friendship, he is trying to lead the young aristocrat into the paths that he ought to follow” (200).
Whether it was due to military aspirations, a disinterest in marriage, or some other reason, Wriothesley finally broke free of this entanglement. But in doing so, he also incurred an enormous fine. In a letter from 1594 written by Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, we learn that: “The young Earl of Southampton, refusing the Lady Vere, payeth £5000 of present payment.”
But there was, indeed, a woman in Wriothesley life: Elizabeth Vernon, one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting.
Elizabeth was also the first cousin of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex.
She was his secret mistress first, and then on August 30, 1598, the pregnant Vernon became the Countess of Southampton when Henry Wriothesley took her as his wife.
According to Stopes, “Southampton knew that, though a betrothal might make the condition of his beloved perfectly respectable in the eyes of the world, there would be difficulties about dower, and title, and Court precedence for her, and loss of the inheritance to the coming heir (if such there were), without the sanction of the religious service of marriage, a sacrament to a Catholic” (122).
Although this illicit alliance was concealed from Queen Elizabeth as long as possible, when she eventually discovered the truth (no doubt thanks to Robert Cecil’s spies), the furious queen had both husband and wife confined to Fleet Prison.
Prior to the imprisonment, Southampton had abruptly left for Paris under the guise of collecting a debt that was owed to him. A letter from the Royal Secretary to the Earl of Southampton reads:
I am grieved to use the style of a councillor to you to whom I have evere rather wished to be the messenger of honour and favour, by laying her Majesty’s command upon you; but I must now put this gall into my ink, that she knows that you came over very lately, and returned very contemptuously; that you have also married one of her maids of honour, without her privity, for which, with other circumstances informed against you, I find her grievously offended, and she commands me to charge you expressly (all excuses set apart) to repair hither to London, and advertise your arrival, without coming to the Court, until her pleasure be known. Sept. 3rd 1 598. From the Court at Greenwich.
After Southampton’s release, relations between Elizabeth and Southampton never recovered. In fact, they were about to worsen, and Southampton would again be imprisoned, this time as a result of his involvement in the failed Essex Rebellion of 1601. This will be discussed further in my next post.
Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies –
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.”
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage
And stretched meter of an antique song.
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice – in it and in my rhyme.
But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair
Which this (Time’s pencil or my pupil pen)
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.