Category Archives: Southampton Project

Reflections on my Southampton Project

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (circa 1618)

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (circa 1618)

After creating over 28 posts for my ongoing blog, Shakes-Query, I’ve completed my independent study focusing primarily on the assumption that Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, was Shakespeare’s patron, as well as the poet’s muse.  I have read and referenced the following biographies:  The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton Shakespeare’s Patron by Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, and Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, by J.P.V. Akrigg.

I also incorporated information from non-traditional Shakespearean sources including:  Charles Beauclerk’s Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom and Hank Whittemore’s The Monument:  “Shake-Speare’s Sonnets” by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.  Work on the project began during the summer but continued on throughout the fall semester.

As of this date, Shakes-Query has 183 followers and is constantly promoted via Facebook and Twitter.  My blog’s readership includes:  college and high school students, college professors, primary and secondary ed teachers, other WordPress bloggers, and professionals in various fields of expertise.  My goal was to offer an approachable discussion platform to discuss all things “Shakespearean” and to encourage interest in the Shakespeare Authorship Question, and I believe I achieve this goal in increments every time I blog.  I’ve never referred to myself as a professional educator but rather as a student who enjoys passing on the knowledge I glean along my academic journey on and off campus.

Unfortunately, I was not able to add any new insight to the already exhaustive biographical research of authors Stopes and Akrigg.  To do so, I would first need access to historical documents and correspondence located in the archives of England, then time to sort through this information and see if I could connect any dots that previous biographers failed to recognize.  Needless to say, that’s a feat that would require much more time than one semester allows, in addition to funding for an overseas literary expedition.

What I have learned was that the foundation for designating Southampton as Shakespeare’s Patron is based primarily on conjectureThere was never any evidence discovered that proves a relationship existed between William Shakspere of Stratford-Upon-Avon and Henry Wriothesley the Third Earl of Southampton In fact, based upon my knowledge of class prejudices of Elizabethan England, interclass intimacy between a nobleman and a businessman was highly unlikely.  The only factual evidence is that the writer of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece dedicated these works to Southampton.  Mere speculation is all that connects Shakespeare’s Sonnets to this earl.

To me, there is reasonable doubt that “Shakespeare” was the man from Stratford and is most likely the pseudonym of someone else, most likely a member of the noble class.

I am grateful to the overwhelming literary information provided by my friends and mentors: Shelly Maycock, Professor of English at VA Tech; Sallie DelVecchio, Professor of English at Middlesex County College; Dr. Roger Stritmatter of Coppin State University; author Hank Whittemore; and other intellectual acquaintances of mine who continue to teach me, on a daily basis, about the many avenues and fine nuances yet to be explored in Shakespearean studies.

Keeping up with the new theories and scholarly discoveries is overwhelming at times, but always intellectually stimulating.  I’ve already learned so much about the key figures in Shakespeare’s world and will continue my research both on and off campus for years to come.

Finally, I would like to thank Professor Kathleen Webber for agreeing to mentor me in this academic endeavor.  Prior to taking her class, “Writing for Interactive Multimedia” at The College of New Jersey last semester, I never considered blogging.  Her class introduced me to the world of social media and taught me how to utilize its diverse outlets in both a professional and educational manner.  Shakes-Query was initiated as an assignment in Professor Webber’s class but continues to be a labor of love and an important part of my educational journey.


Southampton and the Tudor Rose Theory (Part 2 of 2)

In the Prince Tudor theory, Elizabeth I was only the Virgin Queen figuratively not literally.

It is rumored that during one of her royal progresses, particularly the one she took in August of 1572, she was intimately involved with the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.  He was, after all, the Queen’s favorite courtier at that point in time.  In a letter written at that time by Gilbert Talbot to his father the Earl of Shrewsbury, the queen “delighteth more in [Oxford’s] personage and his dancing and his valiantness than any other” (Brougham 171).


In a nutshell, the Prince Tudor/Tudor Rose theory suggests that Elizabeth and Oxford had a son.  He was placed in the Southampton household as the “Changeling Boy,” Henry Wriothesley, who eventually became the 3rd Earl of Southampton (Whittemore xxxviii).


Portrait of Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Derby

As previously stated, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, had been pressuring Wriothesley to marry his granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Vere.  As you may remember, she was also Oxford’s daughter.

If those first 17 Sonnets I’ve been referring to were written by Oxford using the pseudonym “Shake-speare,” wouldn’t it be incestuous for Oxford to be encouraging his own children to marry each other?

But according to records, Oxford initially rejected Elizabeth Vere as his child; in fact, he separated from his wife Anne in 1576 on charges of her alleged infidelity, and refused to see his daughter until almost 6 years later when he accepted her as his own.

This insight conveniently clears up the incest factor, at least during the Wriothesley-Vere marital negotiations.

MonumentsmNow, let’s return to those 17 Procreation Sonnets, and view them through the Prince Tudor lens as per Hank Whittemore‘s The Monument: “Shake-Speares Sonnets” by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.  The following is a brief excerpt from Whittemore’s 860+ page exposition on the entire collection of Shake-speare’s Sonnets.


Opening the Fair Youth series, Oxford uses the royal “we” to command “fairest creatures” (royal children) to beget “increase” (heirs) to ensure that “beauty’s Rose” (Elizabeth’s Tudor Rose dynasty) might not end upon her death (“Rose” is capitalized and italicized in Q):

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die
– Sonnet 1, lines 1-2

This translates as the announcement of a dynastic diary:

From royal children the Queen and I command heirs,
So Elizabeth’s Tudor Rose Dynasty might not perish

From here on, we can view Edward de Vere as consistently using “fair” for Southampton’s royalty and “beauty” for Elizabeth and the Tudor lineage he inherited from her.

The Queen was known as “Beauty,” while “Rose” could not fail to echo the Tudor Rose dynasty begun by her grandfather, Henry VII, in 1485.

(Whittemore lxvi)

Tudor Rose

Tudor Rose

The symbolic Tudor Rose represents the union between the waring English houses of Lancaster and York which came as a result of a marriage between Henry VII of the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth of York.

After this historical marriage in 1486, the War of the Roses came to an end and the Tudor Rose symbol, which combined the white and red roses of the two houses, was created.

And, yes, within that excerpt from Whittemore’s book lies another zinger which connects to a variant of the Prince Tudor theory.  This is referred to as Prince Tudor Theory Part 2 (“PT 2”).

This extension of the theory posits Edward de Vere as yet another bastard son of the Queen with her “stepfather,” Thomas Seymour as the father.  Elizabeth would have been merely 14 at the time of conception.

In the 2011 film Anonymous, Robert Cecil, played by Edward Hogg, relishes the moment as he reveals the identity of Oxford’s biological mother to the Earl.  At this point in the film, the devastated de Vere has just witnessed the failure of Essex and Southampton in their revolt against Cecil’s factions.  (See my earlier post “Guilty of Treason: Part 1” for some historical info on this event.)

In the DVD commentary on the film, writer John Orloff states that he did not want the PT 2 scene included but that director Roland Emmerich wanted it to remain.

Edward Hogg portraying Robert Cecil in Anonymous

Edward Hogg portraying Robert Cecil in Anonymous.

Yes, this is the issue that divides otherwise like-minded Oxfordians into separate camps.  So, you can choose to opt in or out!  What are my feelings on the topic?  While I am intrigued by the evidence that shows a correlation between Elizabeth, Oxford, and the Earl of Southampton, I am also hesitant to assume full-membership into the PT camp.

I am curious if there is any evidence that can prove a connection between Oxford and Mary Browne.  I would like to study that possibility more in depth.

But I do highly recommend Hank Whittemore’s blog:

or purchase a copy of either Shakespeare’s Son and His Sonnets or The Monument for a more comprehensive look into his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as well as other matters regarding Oxford and the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

Southampton and the Tudor Rose Theory (Part 1 of 2)

I’ve hesitated to write this blog post for quite some time now because just the mention of it can trigger a volatile debate.  What I’m referring to is the Prince Tudor, or Tudor Rose theory.

Since I have hinted at it in several posts already, it’s time for me to elaborate for those who are new to the concept.

CAUTION:  For those of you who feel strongly against this theory, this would be the time to change the channel!

beauclerkThere are a few variations to this theory, but I will focus primarily on excerpts from Charles Beauclerk’s book, Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom and in The Monument by Hank Whittemore.  Since this project’s main focus is on Southampton, I won’t get too involved in de Vere’s story right now.

To begin, I have chosen to discuss this theory because it provides a specific lens for interpreting the Sonnets and therefore relates to my independent study.  In this blog project, however, I’ve only focused upon the 17 Procreation Sonnets and the interpretation that implies they were written by Shakespeare to a young man.

If this is true, and if Henry Wriothesley was the addressee of these poems, it appears as if the poet is encouraging the young earl to marry and start making “copies” of himself.

The language is intimate, indeed, but it can be viewed from a homosexual lover-to-lover perspective or even from that of a father-to-son relationship.  Let’s assume the collection of Sonnets are of an autobiographical nature, and that the poet is addressing the young man as if he was his own son.

If you recall, in my previous post entitled “The Young Earl: ‘Harry’ Wriothesley,” I mentioned that the 2nd Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley “Senior,” had been imprisoned for his involvement in the Ridolfi Plot.

Portrait of Mary (Browne) Wriothesley, Countess of Southampton, aged about 13, at the time of her marriage, 1565 as painted by Hans Eworth.

Portrait of Mary (Browne) Wriothesley, Countess of Southampton, aged about 13, at the time of her marriage, 1565 as painted by Hans Eworth.

When an earl spent time in the Tower, he did not necessarily live in squalor, and may have been allowed conjugal visits.

So, we cannot completely rule out “HW Sr.” as the biological father of “HW Jr.,” but, suspiciously, soon after the elder Wriothesley was released from prison, his relationship with his wife, Mary Browne, went downhill.

The Countess was moved to another estate and forbidden to see her young son.

To quote Beauclerk:

Mary Browne, the Countess of Southampton, had given birth to a son on October 6, 1573, but there is no record of a baptism for the baby, who may have died in infancy or been placed with another family in preparation for the adoption of the queen’s son.  Either way, her child was probably illegitimate and not a Wriothesley at all, for the earl, her husband, was in the Tower when the child was conceived and she was rumored to be having an affair with “a common person” by the name of Donesame, pretext enough in those days for the removal of the baby.  (106)

Stopes explains how young Harry was kept in his father’s custody and that the “Earl secluded himself more and more among his followers and estranged himself from his wife” (3).

Although the Countess attempted to make contact and explain herself to her husband, her attempts were hampered by the messengers, the Earl’s servants.  One in particular, Thomas Dymock, seems to have been the most influential in keeping the couple separated and was even designated an executor of the Earl’s will.

As mentioned in my post, “The Young Earl: Harry Wriothesley,” Harry’s wardship was “sold” and as an underage “Queen’s Ward” (Stopes 17), William Cecil became Harry’s legal guardian.

Yes, I’m sure you caught those ominous words in Beauclerk’s quote:  “the adoption of the queen’s son.”

More details to follow in “Southampton and the Tudor Rose Theory (Part 2 of 2)!”

lhertzel_1303424945_quill-penTo Be Continued…

Southampton: Shakespeare’s Patron?

OK, time for some personal commentary on my Southampton independent study project.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; date uncertain, c. 1590

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; c. 1590

I’ve had my nose buried in two well-respected biographies about Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, since the spring semester ended:

The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton Shakespeare’s Patron by Charlotte Carmichael Stopes and Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton by G.P.V. Akrigg.

While I’ve learned so much about this nobleman from these authors, what baffles me the most is their assumptions that Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron.

In the Elizabethan era, when a writer had secured the patronage of a wealthy nobleman, an expression of gratitude for receiving payment from the writer to the patron would typically grace the opening page.

Diana Price, in her book Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography:  New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, writes:  “Shakespeare’s two dedications to Southampton make no mention of ‘bounty’ received or ‘pay and patronage'” (143).

If we read over the wording on the dedication pages of both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, we can confirm Price’s statement.  (click on images to enlarge)

venus & adonis dedDedication_page_of_The_Rape_of_Lucrece_by_William_Shakespeare_1594

In following orthodox authorship theory, we can view these dedications as the poet’s attempt to gain patronage; yet, nothing in the wording implies it was ever accepted.  Furthermore, there is no evidence connecting the man from Stratford-upon-Avon with SouthamptonIn fact, neither Stopes nor Akrigg were able to produce anything more than conjecture on this imaginary relationship.  Here are some examples of the writers’ assumptions I came across in my research:

Here must be introduced … the present writer’s theory of Southampton’s life, based upon long work and logical inferences. … It seems most likely that Southampton introduced himself, willing the player to come to him … because [Southampton] felt that the poet also was suffering something of what he suffered, rebellion against his fate and its limitations.  He felt he must have a private talk with this “man from Stratford,” and took him home with him to supper. (Stopes 40-41)


If the present writer must add his own guess as to where and when Shakespeare and Southampton first met, he would suggest a backstage meeting in a London playhouse sometime in 1591-92.  The person who first presented Shakespeare to the Earl may have been Sir George Carew, whose marriage in 1580 to a Clopton heiress had made him a great man around Stratford … he could be expected to take an interest in a Stratford man with a mounting reputation in London.    (Akrigg 193)

Even though Akrigg had gained access to the Wriothesley Papers the late 1960s, he was no more successful at connecting the dots as Stopes had been in her 1922 endeavor.


Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England c. 1601. Attributed to Robert Peake the Elder

Now I want you to peruse the personal tone of those dedications again.  Keeping in mind the social class ideology of Elizabethan England, where class barriers existed, how do you suppose Shakespeare got away with such a public display of intimacy between himself and an earl?  When pondering this, leave out whatever romantic notions you may have acquired from Hollywood!

Take this thought one step further; assuming that Sonnets 1-17the so-called Procreation Sonnets, were directed to  the 19-year old Henry Wriothesley, what was Shakespeare’s impetus to urge this young earl to marry and procreate?

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford

Hence, we return to the Authorship Debate, and the leading candidate:  Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

If he authored the sonnets, the aforementioned poems, and perhaps other masterpieces from the famous canon we attribute to Shakespeare, what was his connection to Southampton?

(to be continued…)

Guilty of Treason (Part 2: Southampton in the Tower)

Southampton's Letter to His Wife After the Failure of the Essex Rebellion

Southampton’s Letter to His Wife After the Failure of the Essex Rebellion

(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
H. Southampton

Henry Wriothesley and Trixie, in the Tower c.1601-1603. Painted by John de Critz the Elder.

Henry Wriothesley in the Tower c.1601-1603.
Painted by John de Critz the Elder.

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).

King James I of England and VI of Scotland, by John De Critz the Elder

King James I of England and VI of Scotland, by John De Critz the Elder

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!

Southampton and Oxford as portrayed by Xavier Samuels and Rhys Ifans in Anonymous

Southampton and Oxford, as portrayed by Xavier Samuels and Rhys Ifans in Anonymous

Guilty of Treason (Part 1: The Execution of Essex)


Tower of London; photo courtesy of World Visits blog.

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).

Site of the scaffold in front of St. Peter's Chapel at the Tower of London.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Site of the scaffold in front of St. Peter’s Chapel at the Tower of London. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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)

Essex's Execution scene from the 2011 film "Anonymous"

Essex’s Execution scene from the 2011 film Anonymous (Essex played by Sam Reid)

Southampton’s Involvement in the Essex Rebellion

Robert Devereux (1566–1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, Soldier and Courtier by unknown artist Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Date painted: c.1599

Robert Devereux (1566–1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, Soldier and Courtier
by unknown artist
Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Date painted: c.1599

“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,

  1. Civil treatment of Essex and his friends by the Lord Admiral
  2. A fair and impartial trial for the rebels
  3. 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).

Poetic Dedications to an Earl

venus & adonis ded

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:  

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.

A painting of Venus and Adonis by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1614

A painting of Venus and Adonis by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1614

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” (

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)

Portrait of Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Derby (artist unknown)

Portrait of Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Derby (artist unknown)

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:

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.”

 Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton Artist unknown, c.1600

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton
Artist unknown, c.1600

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.

Sonnet 17



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.

Sonnet 16



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.

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