Discovery of a 1595 Reference to “Sweet Shakspeare … Oxford … Our De Vere … A Secret” — No. 80 of 100 Reasons to Conclude that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”

“Most contemporaries alluded to Shakespeare’s famous lines or characters – they did not usually mention his name or give personal information. Even praise for the great author was often indirect, implying that there was something secret about him.” – Katherine Chiljan, “Shakespeare Suppressed”

scan of Polimanteia
(Click on Image for Larger View)

These “reasons” to conclude that Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford wrote the Shakespeare works have generally avoided anagrams and the like, but for Reason No. 80 we make an exception. In my view, what we have here – based on common sense, requiring no formal training to recognize it – is a veritable knockout punch.

In 1595, two years after “Shakespeare” initially appeared — on the dedication of Venus and Adonis to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton — and one year after the name appeared on the dedication of Lucrece to that young nobleman, the University of Cambridge published a book containing one of the first mentions of the new poet.

A page of this book contained an italicized margin note Lucrecia Sweet Shak-speare” alongside two lines of text, one containing the italicized word “Oxford” and the line below containing a perfect anagram of OUR DE VERE — A SECRET.

To be more precise, directly underneath Oxford was printed the odd hyphenated phrase “court-deare-verse,” with letters and words which, in correct sequence, spelled out OUR DE VERE. [c-OUR-t-e-DE-e-a-r-e VERsE.] Moreover, the remaining seven letters (c-t-e-a-r-e-s) formed a perfect anagram of A SECRET.

scan of Polimanteia
(Click on Image for Larger View)

The book was Polimanteia. The publication in 1595 was anonymous, but later evidence showed it was written by William Covell, a clergyman who received his MA from Cambridge in 1588 and went on to serve as a Fellow of Queen’s College, Cambridge, from 1589 to 1599.

Discoverer of this rather amazing Oxford=Shakespeare reference, which had been hiding in plain sight for more than four centuries, is Alexander Waugh, the English writer who is also a critic, journalist, composer, cartoonist, record producer, television producer and outspoken critic of the traditional Stratfordian biography.

Alexander Waugh

Alexander Waugh

The grandson of novelist Evelyn Waugh, he recently co-edited (with John M. Shahan) — and contributed to — the book of essays entitled Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, Exposing an Industry in Denial, published in response to the orthodox position of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The complete marginal note reads: “All praise/ worthy./ Lucrecia/ Sweet Shak-/ speare./ Eloquent Gaveston./ Wanton Adonis./ Watsons heyre (heir).”

(“The spelling ‘Shakspeare’ – missing the medial ‘e’ – is here forced by lack of space,” Waugh points out. Adding an ‘e’ after the ‘k’ would make it collide with the main text. “No other significance should be attached to this spelling.”)

"Venus and Adonis" Dedication - 1593

“Venus and Adonis” Dedication – 1593

The note’s references to “Lucrecia” and “Adonis” obviously refer to Shakespeare’s two narrative poems. Given that the overall topic covers poets and poetry, “Gaveston” most likely refers to Michael Drayton’s historical poem The Legend of Piers Gaveston, published in 1593; and “Watson” refers to the poet Thomas Watson, who had dedicated Hekatompathia, or the Passionate Century of Love (1582), a sequence of 100 consecutively numbered verses, to his patron Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, who had viewed them in manuscript and apparently had been involved with their actual writing.

Covell, well aware that “Shakespeare” was Oxford’s new pen name and that this was a highly sensitive state secret, was careful to avoid pointing directly to the earl. On the other hand, he was equally careful to place the margin words “Lucrecia Sweet Shakspeare” right next to the lines containing “Oxford” and “courte-deare-verse” — and, therefore, the crucial aspect of his indirect message was the combination of both the margin note and the text; to get Covell’s barely hidden meaning, the reader must view them in conjunction with each other.

"Lucrece" Dedication 1594

“Lucrece” Dedication

“The main text of Polimanteia is supported by a great many marginal notes,” Waugh writes in the De Vere Society Newsletter, “all of which have been precisely and meticulously placed by the printer so that there can be no doubt as to which line each is intended to reference.” With that observation in mind, he declares, “Given that only a handful of direct allusions to Shakespeare are known to exist from the 1590s, and given that the world has been turned upside-down in search of any information relating to the Bard, I find it very strange that no Shakespearean scholar has yet seen fit to investigate the meaning of this little note in relation to the text to which it is supposed to refer.” (My emphasis)

Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton

Henry Wriothesley
Earl of Southampton

There is a definite political dimension to this story, however, and it involves Oxford’s support via “Shakespeare” to the Earl of Southampton, to whom he wrote in the Lucrece dedication: “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.” During these years, roughly 1592-1594, there had been an open effort to raise Southampton in the public eye and even to suggest he was a prince who deserved to succeed Elizabeth I on the throne.

But the young earl had refused a political marriage to Elizabeth Vere, granddaughter of William Cecil Lord Burghley (and the reputed daughter of Oxford, who had denied his paternity), preferring instead to join Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex in breaking away from Burghley and his son Robert Cecil. And now William Covell was dedicating Polimanteia to Essex, pledging his “deep affection” as well as his “kindnesse and love” in the process of devoting “the full interest of my self to your dispose.”

William Cecil Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil

William Cecil Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil

Edward de Vere, Robert Devereux and Henry Wriothesley had all three been royal wards of the Queen in Burghley’s household; all three had been Cambridge men, as was Covell, who appears to have used Polimanteia to publicly (though indirectly) declare his support for the “Essex faction” in the power struggle to control the succession upon Elizabeth’s death.

This growing political battle would result just six years later in the Essex faction’s use of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (known to us as “Shakespeare’s Company”) to perform Richard II at the Globe (showing the deposition of a monarch) on the eve of the so-called Essex rebellion of 8 February 1601, aimed at removing Robert Cecil. It ended in utter failure, followed by the execution of Essex and the confinement of Southampton in the Tower until after Elizabeth’s death in 1603 and Cecil’s engineering of the succession of King James.

Going back to 1595, however, Alexander Waugh raises the question of how to explain the “brazen temerity” of William Covell in publishing with Cambridge at a time when Lord Burghley himself was Chancellor of the University. That fact, plus the dedication to Essex, leads to a “natural supposition,” he writes, “that the release of Covell’s secret [about Oxford as Shakespeare] was in some way sanctioned by Essex and/or Burghley.”

While the proposed alliance of Southampton and the Cecil family through marriage was in play, during 1590-1594, Burghley would have been in favor of Oxford’s attempt to persuade the younger earl to go along (in Venus and Adonis the Goddess of Love has thirty-six lines urging the young god to hurry into marriage and fatherhood, using virtually the same words as in the first seventeen sonnets to Southampton urging procreation). Even the Archbishop of Canterbury (who took his orders from Burghley and/or the Queen) had signed off on Venus and Adonis, that first published offering with “Shakespeare” attached to it.

Southampton in Tower 1601 - 1603

Southampton in Tower
1601 – 1603

By 1595, however, the potential Oxford-Elizabeth-Burghley alliance with Southampton had ended, so that now Oxford was breaking with William and Robert Cecil while using “Shakespeare” to support Southampton alone. And in doing so, he was inevitably joining the Essex faction — even against his better judgment. It appears to me, therefore, that Covell in 1595 must have been quite daring to insert his allusion to the Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare,” with its implied support of Essex and Southampton against the entrenched Cecil faction.

Yes, quite daring, in a world where writers were being censored, imprisoned, tortured, killed.

At stake, after all, was the crown.

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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “Courte” means “short” in French, but could this be said to describe de Vere?

    • Well, yes, I suppose so, since Oxford was a “courtier poet,” as they say. The full phrase could easily mean “dear court verse.” Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. According to Nashe, “Mark him well. He is but a little fellow but he hath one of the best wits in England.” (Strange News)

    Waugh’s find is exciting and good. Covell’s covert conjure is not too far off Jonson’s jingle, “Quick Nature Dide”, equally meaningless until you translate it into Latin: Summa De Velocium Rerum Natura, which is a crude Latin phrase but a good identifier when you take the first part of each word and line them up. Sum De Ve Re Natu. I am de Vere by birth.

    Another identification find, by Nicole Doyle, is the anonymous text about one ‘Thomas Smithe’s’ adventures, (1605) containing the words, “I am with the late quick-spirited, clear-eyed English Ovid”. As this was written in 1605, who was the English Ovid who died recently? The sentence is chock-full of clues. “I” in Italian is IO, pronounced E’O. “I am with” equals “us”. EdwardUS. Clear-eyed like an eagle and an English Ovid, possibly Lord Oxford praised by Gabriel Harvey” “eyed like to Argus, nos’d like to Naso”. Naso referencing Publius Ovidius Naso. One of de Vere’s poems read in part, “Which hath Sir Argus’ hundred eyes wherewith to watch and pry.” Then there is de Vere’s entire Latin name EdwardUS COMES [Latin word for ‘with’: cum] Oxoniensis. Put the clues together and every word doth almost tell his name.

    These clever naming or referring devices were parlor entertainment to the Elizabethans. They worked as discreet messages in a bottle to the future too. We are just starting to pop them open.

    best wishes for the new year,

    William Ray

    • Thanks, William! The evidence continues to pile up. Warmest wishes to you, too.

  3. Another interesting take on “Courte-deare-verse”N (why the hyphens here?) is that it forms a homophone for “Courtier Verse.” I like that take. Any way you look at this, it is a clever Elizabethan word puzzle. I think that Alexander Waugh has probably cracked this nut.

    • Yes, very good, I like that too. And I agree, this seems like the real deal. I know we are both cautious about these things. For example, there is a grid on Sonnet 76 that Roper published, and it looks pretty darn good. I might put it on the blog asking for comments on it. I’ve never felt qualified to judge these things unless they look obvious — such as the Rollet solution to the Dedication.

      • I don’t really see that without a computer one could assemble and analyse a grille like that. So I orefer they things which don’t need anything which people 400 years ago didn’t have.

      • Fascinating post and great decoding.

        I just wanted to say to Sandy that I am never too sure on the skip coding examples. I would want to see meaningful phrases and even sentences appearing because they did have a method called a grill cipher.

        Grille cipher From Wikipedia:

        In the history of cryptography, a grille cipher was a technique for encrypting a plaintext by writing it onto a sheet of paper through a pierced sheet (of paper or cardboard or similar). The earliest known description is due to the polymath Girolamo Cardano in 1550. His proposal was for a rectangular stencil allowing single letters, syllables, or words to be written, then later read, through its various apertures. The written fragments of the plaintext could be further disguised by filling the gaps between the fragments with anodyne words…

        And yes that was the mathematician and philosopher of Cardanus’s Comfort. Basically the other party would have the same grill template and when they laid it over the letter the secret message would show through the windows of the grill but the same idea could have been used to create messages in grids.

  4. Curious… looks like Oxford’s secret was almost “public”, at least, a couple of writers of the time knew it, didn’t them Whittemore?

    • Yes, Francisco, and more than we’ve thought. The Queen, Burghley, Robert Cecil, Hunsdon, Burbage … but I think the secret was not so much about who was Shakespeare but that the Queen had a son by Oxford, as witness Shakespeare’s open dedications to Southampton. Even if no one could prove it, or know it for certain, it was in the air, just as the question of who would succeed Elizabeth was “the elephant in the room.” It was treason to speak or write about any given successor, and the penalties were harsh — a good way to maintain secrecy and silence. The safety and health of the whole state depended on stability, so it continued to be a secret — and at the time, that was a thousand times more important than any authorship question. This continued right up to the 1642 beginning of the English civil war, after which there was just a general silence of forgetting. We have been concentrating on the literary problem of Shakespeare authorship, but that is just a symptom of the real problem, which was the queen’s inability to name an heir to the throne and, also, the existence of a Tudor heir. It was to everyone’s advantage to keep quiet. But we are talking about 1 percent of the population, if that much. The rest of the public would not know much of anything.

      • Yes, Tudors’ heirs were motive of death and taboo in Elizabeth’s reign. I once read of a man who served to Leicester who said his Lord and Earl had five children with the Queen, and guess what happened to him… if I find more informations about this man I can send you.

        They weren’t the only one. Think about the others who colaborate with Oxford, like John Donne as Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe and Francis Bacon as Richard Barnfield…

        Francis Bacon was too one of the heirs, but he knew too of Elizabeth’s heirs (yes, heirs) by Oxford. I don’t remember the name of the document because I haven’t spent my time in Shakespeare, but I remember to read a document Bacon wrote on Elizabeth’s death and he seems to use a little of the language Oxford used in his Sonnets. And he refered that Elizabeth left “two fair issues”. Who could they have been? Baconians say they were Bacon and Essex, but Essex was already dead… I believe in Streitz’ logic about the children of Elizabeth by Leicester and, excepting Essex, there were still four of this children alive. The only two left would have been Oxford and Southampton, but would Oxford be so crazy to the point of claiming himself heir? He does in the Sonnets, but only with the wish of makinf Southampton too. I believe Rutland was one of the fair issues, the non-identical younger twin of Southampton…

  5. Hi Mystikel,

    what you write about grille-encoding is interesting. However, Oxenford’s aim was to convey the truth for future generations, not yet born, and not to somebody at that very age, with a decoding grille in his hand. So, I still don’t believe that the truth was hidden by this technique. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to read and write about.

    • I agree. I think someone as brilliant as de Vere could have used a grille to lay in the letters of a skip sequencing message, adapting it for that purpose so I don’t dismiss the idea entirely but I think the examples that have been found are just as likely to be due to chance. I think finding ver plays and coded allusions in the literature like the great example hank gave in the post is far more promising.

  6. If we’re looking for clues with an assumption that “Polimanteia” was written by someone “in the know” about the true identity of Shakespeare, there’s a Marlovian interpretation as well.

    It starts with a proposal that the inclusion of “Oxford” is a straightforward reference to the fact that Samuel Daniel attended Oxford University.

    We then go on to note that Gaveston was a key character in Christopher Marlowe’s play “Edward II,” and that the phrase “Lucrecia, Sweet Shakespeare, eloquent Gaveston, wanton Adonis” associates a work by Marlowe with two by Shakespeare, which might be interpreted as a clue that the same author wrote all three pieces.

    This is followed by “Watson’s heir.” Marlowe was a good friend of Thomas Watson: the two were involved in a sword fight together, and Marlowe wrote prefatory material for a book of Watson’s work published after Watson died. Marlowe, a fine poet, might well have been thought of as Watson’s heir.

    I write this note to respectfully let you know that there’s more than one interpretation of a “hidden” message in “Polimanteia.”

    Donna N. Murphy

    • Hi Donna. Thanks for weighing in with this. We should keep it in mind. Happy New Year!

      • Happy New Year to you, too, Hank!

        By the way, Oxfordians, I encourage you to check out the action on the Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection blog, Marlovian Peter Farey had already uncovered hidden clues pointing to Marlowe’s authorship of Shakespeare in the English verbiage on the Stratford monument ( In a recent article on the blog, he discusses clues pointing to Marlowe in the Latin portion as well. It’s pretty cool!

  7. I agree that there is something more comprehensive here than a trick identification of de Vere. I do not see Marlowe as the focus. The Covell page-arrangement’s unifying point seems to be that all these figures, including Marlowe, were recipients of his support, as indicated by the phrase, “Register YOUR children in Fame’s FORE-head.”

    Both the capitalized words were constants in other oblique references to de Vere (=vier=four). The Droeshout’s enormous bulging FOREhead and a bas-relief O on it, with the left-shoulder embroidery E’O-U, (for Earl of Oxford yeE-Oou)–being a good example in the next generation.

    The Covell Latin epigram at the end of the second column, Procul hine procul ite profani, strikingly resembles the Venus and Adonis quotation from Ovid’s Amores. “Far far from the profane” versus “Let base conceited wits admire vile things/ Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses’ springs.”

    Definitely public and privileged information co-existing on the same page.

  8. Hank, I gave a comment to Alexander Waughs “discovery”
    see my Blog 162, perhaps its of interest for you.

    bastian conrad

    • Thanks. I hope readers will spend time at your blog site and comment back here. I’m working on my second posting on Marlowe …

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