Pleading for Mercy – “The Living Record” – Chapter 40 – Southampton Writes to the Privy Council to Save His Life

Twenty-seven-year-old Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton wrote several letters to the Privy Council from the Tower of London soon after his trial of Feb. 19, 1601, when he was condemned to death as a traitor.

Southampton in the Tower, reduced from Lord to Commoner as "Mr. Henry Wriothesley" or in legal terms "the late earl"...

Southampton in the Tower, reduced from Lord to Commoner as "Mr. Henry Wriothesley" or in legal terms "the late earl"...

According to the Monument theory, Sonnets 27-66 cover this crucial time when fifty-year-old Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, after being forced to act as his son’s “adverse party” on the tribunal of peers sitting in judgment, was now acting behind the scenes as Southampton’s “advocate” or legal counsel trying to save his life.

“Thy adverse party is thy Advocate,” Oxford tells him in Sonnet 35, and Southampton is following his advice by saying he had not intended any treason and by begging for Her Majesty’s mercy.

There’s a remarkable correspondence between the legal terminology in Southampton’s letters to the Council and the words that Oxford uses in his private sonnets to Southampton:

“I beseech your Lordships be pleased to receive the petition of a poor condemned man,” Southampton writes, “who doth, with a lowly and penitent heart, confess his faults and acknowledge his offences to her Majesty.”

“Let me confess that we two must be twain” – Sonnet 36

“All men make faults” – Sonnet 35

“Th’offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.” – Sonnet 34

Hank performing "Shake-Speare's Treason"

Hank performing "Shake-Speare's Treason"

“What my fault hath been your Lordships know to the uttermost, wherein, howsoever I have offended in the letter of the law, your Lordships I think cannot but find, by the proceedings at my trial, that my heart was free from any premeditate treason against my sovereign, though my reason was corrupted by affection to my friend [Essex] (whom I thought honest) and I by that carried headlong to my ruin, without power to prevent it, who otherwise could never have been induced for any cause of mine own to have hazarded her Majesty’s displeasure but in a trifle: yet I can not despair of her favor, neither will it enter into my thought that she who hath been ever so renowned for her virtues, and especially for clemency, will not extend it to me, that do with so humble and grieved a spirit prostrate myself at her royal feet and crave her pardon.”

“To you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime” – Sonnet 58
(Southampton has it in his power to agree to the bargain Oxford has made with Robert Cecil, requiring him to renounce any claim to the throne so he can gain a royal pardon)

“O let her never suffer to be spilled the blood of him that desires to live but to do her service, nor lose the glory she shall gain in the world by pardoning one whose heart is without spot, though his cursed destiny hath made his acts to be condemned, and whose life, if it please her to grant it, shall be eternally ready to be sacrificed to accomplish her least commandment.”

“When hours have drained his blood” – Sonnet 63

“My lords, there are divers amongst you to whom I owe particular obligation for your favors past, and to all I have ever performed that respect which was fit, which makes me bold in this manner to importune you, and let not my faults now make me seem more unworthy than I have been, but rather let the misery of my distressed estate move you to be a mean to her Majesty, to turn away her heavy indignation from me.  O let not her anger continue towards an humble and sorrowful man, for that alone hath more power to dead my spirits than any iron hath to kill my flesh.”

Kill me with spites” – Sonnet 40

“Ah, but thought kills me” – Sonnet 44

“My soul is heavy and troubled for my offences, and I shall soon grow to detest myself if her Majesty refuse to have compassion of me.

“But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe” – Sonnet 44

“The law hath hitherto had his proceedings, whereby her justice and my shame is sufficiently published; now is the time that mercy is to be showed.  O pray her then, I beseech your lordships, in my behalf to stay her hand, and stop the rigorous course of the law, and remember, as I know she will never forget, that it is more honor to a prince to pardon one penitent offender than with severity to punish many.

“Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief” – Sonnet 34

“Loving offenders, thus I will excuse thee” – Sonnet 42

“To conclude, I do humbly entreat your Lordships to sound mercy in her ears, that thereby her heart, which I know is apt to receive any impression of good, may be moved to pity me, that I may live to lose my life (as I have been ever willing and forward to venture it) in her service, as your lordships herein shall effect a work of charity, which is pleasing to God; preserve an honest man (howsoever now his faults have made him seem otherwise) to his country; win honor to yourselves, by favoring the distressed; and save the blood of one who will live and die her Majesty’s faithful and loyal subject.”

“But weep to have that which it fears to lose” – Sonnet 64

“Thus, recommending my self and my suit to your Lordships’ honorable considerations; beseeching God to move you to deal effectually for me, and to inspire her Majesty’s royal heart with the spirit of mercy and compassion towards me, I end, remaining,

“Your Lordships’ most humbly, of late Southampton, but now of all men most unhappy,

H. Wriothesley

(Charlotte Stopes, The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton, 1922, pp 225-226; Salisbury Papers, vol. XI, p. 72; “after Feb. 19, 1601”)

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