Reason No. 28 of 100 to Believe that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”: the Crucial Role Played by Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Poetry and Fair Youth of his Sonnets

One of the most important reasons to believe Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare” – number 28 on this list – is the central role played by Henry Wriothesley the third Earl of Southampton.

Henry Earl of Southampton in his teens, by Nicholas Hilliard

The grand entrance of “William Shakespeare” onto the published page took place in 1593 as the printed signature on the dedication to Southampton of Venus and Adonis as “the first heir of my invention,”  followed a year later by the dedication to him of Lucrece in 1594, with an extraordinary declaration of personal commitment to the 20-year-old earl:

“The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end … What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours … Your Lordship’s in all duty, William Shakespeare.”

“There is no other dedication like this in Elizabethan literature,” Nichol Smith wrote in 1916, and because the great author never dedicated another work to anyone else, he uniquely linked Southampton to “Shakespeare” from then to now.

Southampton at 22 in 1595

Most scholars agree that “Shakespeare,” in the first seventeen of the 154 consecutively numbered sonnets printed in 1609, was privately urging Southampton to beget a child to continue his bloodline – demanding it in a way that would ordinarily have been highly offensive: “Make thee another self, for love of me.”

[As most readers of this blog are aware, I believe the language, tone and statements in the Sonnets make clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the elder poet, Oxford, was writing to Southampton as father to son – and, too, as father to a royal son who deserved to succeed his mother, Queen Elizabeth, on the throne as King Henry IX of England.  For the purposes of this post, however, all we need show is that Oxford is the most likely man who publicly pledged his devotion to Southampton.]

The trouble for traditional scholars is that there’s not a scrap of documentary evidence that “Shakespeare” and Henry Wriothesley had even met each other, much less that they might have had any kind of personal relationship allowing the author to command a high-ranking peer of the realm to “make thee another self, for love of me”!

“It is certain that the Earl of Southampton and the poet we know as Shakespeare were on intimate terms,” Charlton Ogburn Jr. wrote in The Mysterious William Shakespeare [1584], “but Charlotte G. Stopes, Southampton’s pioneer biographer [1922] spent seven years or more combing the records of the Earl and his family without turning up a single indication that the fashionable young lord had ever had any contact with a Shakespeare, and for that reason deemed the great work of her life a failure.”

“Oxford was a nobleman of the same high rank as Southampton and just a generation older,” J. Thomas Looney wrote in 1920, adding that “the peculiar circumstances of the youth to whom the Sonnets were addressed were strikingly analogous to his own.”

William Cecil Lord Burghley, Master of the Royal Wards

  • Edward de Vere became the first royal ward of Elizabeth at age twelve in 1562, under the guardianship of William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), and in 1571 he entered into an arranged marriage with the chief minister’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Anne Cecil.
  • Henry Wriothesley became the eighth and last such child of state as a boy in 1581, also in the chief minister’s custody, and during 1590-91 he resisted unusual pressure to enter into an arranged marriage with Burghley’s fifteen-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth Vere.

The young lady was also Oxford’s daughter (of record), making him in fact the prospective father-in-law; and scholars generally agree that in the “procreation” sonnets Shakespeare sounds very much like a prospective father-in-law (or father) urging Southampton to accept Burghley’s choice of a wife for him.

Lady Elizabeth Vere, who married William Stanley Earl of Derby in 1595

At the outset, therefore, Edward de Vere and Henry Wriothesley were brought together by this particular marriage proposal coming from the most powerful man in England with the full blessing of his sovereign mistress.  And regardless of how either Oxford or Southampton truly felt about it, they both had an extremely important personal stake in the outcome.

Looney noted that both Oxford and Southampton “had been left orphans and royal wards at an early age, both had been brought up under the same guardian, both had the same kind of literary tastes and interests, and later the young man followed exactly the same course as the elder as a patron of literature and drama.”

The separate entries for Oxford and Southampton in the Dictionary of National Biography, written before the twentieth century, revealed that “in many of its leading features the life of the younger man is a reproduction of the life of the elder,” Looney noted, adding it was “difficult to resist the feeling that Wriothesley had made a hero of De Vere, and had attempted to model his life on that of his predecessor as royal ward.”

If Oxford was writing the private sonnets to Southampton, and I have no doubt of it, then we should not expect to find the two of them publicly spending much time together or even any time at all.  Oxford tells Southampton in Sonnet 36, for example, “I may not evermore acknowledge thee;” in Sonnet 71 he instructs him, “Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;” and in Sonnet 89 he vows: “I will acquaintance strangle and look strange, Be absent from thy walks, and in my tongue Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell…”

A Notice of the Essex-Southampton Trial of Feb. 19, 1600 (1601) with Edward de Vere given prominence as a judge on the tribunal

[Once Southampton came to Court at age sixteen or seventeen, Oxford removed himself from active attendance.  The two shared an important secret, a hidden story, that tied them together; and they evidently needed to stay apart, at least in public.]

Some of the historical facts are:

  •    As royal wards, both Oxford and Southampton had Queen Elizabeth as their official mother, in addition to serving her as loyal subjects.
  •    Oxford in the early 1590’s was Southampton’s prospective father-in-law.
  •    After the failed Essex Rebellion in February 1601, Oxford came forth to sit as highest-ranking earl on the tribunal for the treason trial of Essex and Southampton.
  •    The peers had no choice but to render a unanimous guilty verdict; but there is evidence that Oxford then worked behind the scenes to save Southampton’s life and gain his eventual liberation, as in Sonnet 35: “Thy adverse party is thy Advocate.”
  • Southampton in the Tower (Feb 8, 1601 - April 10, 1603)

  • On the night of Oxford’s reported death on June 24, 1604, agents of the Crown arrested Southampton and returned him to the Tower, where he was interrogated all night until his release the following day.
  • Henry de Vere, 18th earl of Oxford, and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton - circa 1619

  • Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton and Henry de Vere, the eighteenth Earl of Oxford+ became close friends during the reign of James; the earls were known as the “Two Henries.”  They were Parliament men who often took sides against the king and were imprisoned for it.

(Henry de Vere was born to Edward de Vere and his second wife Elizabeth Trentham in February 1593)

And there are other kinds of evidence for us to mull:

Tradition has it that Shakespeare wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost in the early 1590’s for Southampton to entertain college friends at his country house; but given the sophisticated wordplay of this court comedy and its intended aristocratic audience, it is difficult to see how Will of Stratford would or could have written it.

On the eve of the Essex Rebellion led by the Earls of Essex and Southampton, some of the conspirators engaged the Lord Chamberlain’s Company to perform Shakespeare’s play Richard II at the Globe; and a number of historians assume, perhaps correctly, that Southampton himself got permission from “Shakespeare” to use the play with its (as yet unpublished) scene of the deposing of the king.

Once the so-called rebellion failed and Southampton was imprisoned in the Tower on that night of February 8, 1601, all authorized printings of heretofore unpublished Shakespeare plays abruptly ceased.

After Southampton was released on April 10, 1603, the poet “Shake-speare” wrote Sonnet 107 celebrating his liberation after being “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom,” that is, subjected to a “doom” or sentence of imprisonment for life.

The White Tower where Southampton was imprisoned

When Oxford reportedly died in June 1604, a complete text of Hamlet was published; and then all such authorized publications again ceased for the next nineteen years until the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in 1623.

For the wedding of Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery and Oxford’s daughter Susan Vere in December of 1604, the Court of James held a veritable Shakespeare festival with seven performances of the Bard’s plays running into January 1605.  [If Edward de Vere had been the real author, and again I have no doubt that he was, the royal performances were a memorial tribute to him.] One of the festival’s stagings for King James and Queen Anne, with the Court, was a revival of Love’s Labour’s Lost, hosted by Southampton at his house in London.

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Hank,
    I have a slightly different theory as to why the first 17 sonnets were dedicated to Southampton.
    Once he entered into wardship, I would suggest that de Vere would have come into contact with Southampton fairly regularly, certainly so after reconciling with his wife Anne Cecil. De Vere must have been a regular visitor to Cecil’s house after then. They had the same interests and tastes and, as quoted by Looney, it is “difficult to resist the feeling that Wriothesley had made a hero of De Vere, and had attempted to model his life on that of his predecessor as royal
    ward.” As such, isn’t it just as likely de Vere responded in kind by forming a close fatherly
    love for the Earl, especially as de Vere had no heir until 1593.
    Under this scenario the first 17 sonnets urging marriage and procreation would make perfect sense, especially as Southampton, warriorlike, was more likely to die young and heirless in battle. This theory would also accord with your rendering of the rest of the sonnets, in ‘The Monument’, through de Vere’s continuing fondness for and relationship with the Earl and concern for his welfare up until the rebellion and beyond.

  2. Whether Oxford advocated Southampton’s marriage to the former’s daughter Elizabeth has never been established. The first seventeen poems as well as the eighteenth are set in late Spring and early Summer. Burghley did not get the idea to unite two possible siblings until July, according to a correspondence about it, and he did not propose the union until September. Thus, in the sonnets, the non-mention of a potential bride was sincere; the actual match had not occurred; only later in the Summer did that happen. The timing is important because, one, it throws a poor light on Oxford that he would have countenanced an incestuous marriage for show between son and daughter, and two, the matter of conscience likely would have manifested somehow in the poems if this situation had been known to him. As there is no evidence of reserve or hesitancy in his poetry, I feel the earlier writing of those sonnets gains inferential support.

    To be objective, certain language is ambiguous in the early Sonnets: “you had a father; let your son say so.” (Sonnet 13) To my ear this does not justify the unequivocal claim that it was directed at a youth born of someone else than the author. A prose rendering removes the ambiguity. “As an axiom of siring heirs, since you as the royal youth had a father, now it is your duty to be a progenitor as well and produce the next heir.”

    This set of poems is fraught with meaning because James VI had just fathered a son, so was one up in terms of the succession sweepstakes. It seemed imperative that Southampton if he were to press his suit for the Kingship would have to match James. It seems also Southampton did not want any part of this suit or those terms. It isn’t the first time that an heir has thrown his crown across the room. There is nothing sacred about a crown. At least not to the youth who might bear it. It was hugely politically expedient to a number of potential gainers if he picked it up. He did not. His star set after that. In later years, perhaps it was his wish to remind James of his prior claim to the monarchy, which may explain the publication of Troilus and Cressida and the Sonnets in 1609. Southampton was not known as a skillful in-fighter at court. In fact, Troilus and Cressida was never staged in his lifetime, and the Sonnets were probably suppressed about as soon as issued. He was a hothead and a lot of trouble. But governments can handle individuals who make trouble. He and his son died of poisoning with weeks of each other in 1626. There was no more talk about a prior Tudor right to succession.

    In and for the county of Los Angeles,

    Jack Webb

    • These are important points and I absolutely agree, Jack, uh, William. Pseudonym, eh? I must modify my own slant somewhat by first referring to 1-17 as not the marriage sonnets but, rather, the “procreation” sonnets — which is clear from the words themselves. Southampton is to pass on his “beauty” or bloodline.

      Here is something I mean to stress in near future — the fact that although Shakespeare does use the word “beautiful” in his plays, most often the adjective is applied to a female; but even more importantly, the adjective “beautiful” is used only once in the sonnets, in 106:

      When in the chronicle of wasted time
      I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
      And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
      In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,

      The point here is that the noun “beauty” is used many times in the sonnets, and when applied to Southampton it is used as something which he possesses. I suggest that “beauty” is often used in the fair youth sonnets to refer to the royal blood from beauty (Elizabeth) that Southampton possesses. He is never described as “beautiful.”

      You must be right about this overriding concern for him to propagate.

      And yes, the statement that “you had a father” simply means, in my view, that “you, like every other prince, had a parent whose ‘spirit’ or blood-carrying sperm helped create you and give you your royal blood.”

      Thanks for weighing in….

      • Totally agree about ‘Beauty’ as allegorical code in the Sonnets for Elizabeth. Not only did no one call her by her first name, but by no name whatsoever; rather, the honorifics of Diana, Beauty, Cynthia, Cytherea, Venus, Moon. Fair and Sweet are the requisite adjectives, meaning a heightened being, glowing close to a halo, refined majesty, carrying out the concept that the monarch is Divine. Such as ‘Sweet Cytherea’, ‘beauty’s queen’, ‘fair queen’ in Sonnet IV of The Passionate Pilgrim, which were written as early as the 1580’s. The argument can be made that a stylistic basis for the Sonnets existed decades before they were published. They didn’t come out of nothing, the impression conveyed by tradition.

  3. Thank you sooo very much. All I can say is that I have been following this controversy as objectively as possible for over 15 yrs. of my life. However, and unfortunately, my profound admiration for the work, as a poet and writer myself, my stance of respect for his obvious labor at anonymity led me to keep it at bay. Furthermore, beings that I consider myself an intellectual thinker, I regrettedly also preferred elizabeths

    • Thanks for the comment. But you didn’t finish:-)

  4. I noticed that Sonnet 35 may be related to lines in Richard II in Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623). On page page 43 of the Histories (Richard II), in the left-hand column, bottom of the page, there are these lines spoken by Bolingbroke: “O loyall Father of a treacherous Sonne: / Thou sheere, immaculate, and silver fountaine, / From whence this steam through muddy passages / Hath had his current, and defil’d himself.” In the lines, Bolingbroke is saying that the Duke of Aumerle has defiled the honor of his father, the Duke of York, by his participation in a treasonous plot to kill the king (Bolingbroke). This is the only place where a “silver fountain” is associated with being fouled by mud. (There are other mud-fountain associations, but no other with a “silver fountain” mentioned.) The same imagery of a silver fountain fouled by mud is found in Sonnet 35. As noted in this post, Sonnet 35 may referring to Southampton’s betrayal in the Essex Rebellion and Oxford’s roll as leading lord on the jury that convicted Southampton, and his efforts to save Southampton afterwards (Thy adverse party is thy advocate”). Just as Aumerle expressed remorse for his involvement in the conspiracy against Bolingbroke, so too did Southampton express remorse for his role in the Essex Rebellion. The subject of the scene and imagery on page 43 fits the theory that wrong committed by the “Fair Youth” in Sonnet 35 refers to Southampton’s role in the Essex Rebellion.

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