“Sweet Swan of Avon” Refers to the Poet-Playwright of Hampton Court Palace!

At the recent conference of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship in Madison, Wisconsin, the multi-talented Alexander Waugh of England delivered a talk that should be picked up by the New York Times and put right on the front page, with a headline such as:


(Click on Image for Larger View)

(Click on Image for Larger View)

In other words, all these years – these centuries! – we have been misinformed that Ben Jonson, in the First Folio of Shakespeare plays (1623), was referring exclusively to William Shaksper of Stratford-upon-Avon:

Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James!

Waugh pointed out that neither Queen Elizabeth nor King James ever went to a play at the Globe on the Thames (or any other public playhouse in England). But the magical location where both monarchs enjoyed performances of the Shakespeare plays was the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, on the banks of the Thames; and it turns out that Hampton Court had been known as Avon!

Alexander Waugh

Alexander Waugh

In Britannia, his Latin history of Great Britain and Ireland, Jonson’s mentor William Camden quoted historian John Leland in Genethliacon (1543) as indicating that Hampton Court had been called Avon; and when Camden translated his own work in 1610, he rendered Leland’s lines about Hampton Court this way (with my emphasis):

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

“A Stately place for rare and glorious shew. There is, which Tamis with wandring stream doth dowse; Times past, by name of Avon men it knew: Heere Henrie, the Eighth of that name, built an house So sumputuous, as that on such an one (Seeke through the world) the bright Sunne never shone.”

Waugh included many other details in his talk, which is reproduced in the current issue of The Oxfordian , the annual journal of the Fellowship. For example: “In his Cygnea Cantio (1545), Leland explained that Hampton Court was called ‘Avon’ as a shortening of the Celtic-Roman name ‘Avondunum’ meaning a fortified place (dunum) by a river (avon), which ‘the common people by corruption called Hampton.” And, Waugh added, “This etymology was supported by Raphael Hollinshed, who wrote in his Chronicles (1586) that ‘we now pronounce Hampton for Avondune.’”

[The original meaning of Avondunum was “fort by the river.”]

The Great Hall Hampton Court Palace

The Great Hall
Hampton Court Palace

So Jonson in the Folio of 1623 was undoubtedly pointing – indirectly! – to Stratford-upon-Avon, but he was even more strongly (for those who would know) identifying the great palace on the Thames where the true author’s plays were given wondrous “flights” or performances for Elizabeth and James – the Palace of Avon, a.k.a. Hampton Court!


PS – The swan, representing a poet, had been given royal status in the 12th century. And “sweet” in Shakespeare has several meanings, but perhaps the most famous one is applied to the royal protagonist of Hamlet: “Good night, sweet prince …”

“Sweet Swan of Avon!” – Royal Poet-Prince of Hampton Court Palace!

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23 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks Hank. Note that in the eulogy, the word Avon is spelled with a “u” instead of “v”. The “u’ is itself a verbal pun, because it constitutes the sound, EE-OO. To the knowing, the writer wished to leave no doubt.

  2. William Josephray, for the less educated could you please explicate this verbal pun a bit?

    • From as early as Oxford’s courtly poetry and as late as the Sonnets (Sitting alone upon my thought in melancholy mood and such as Sonnet 66 in original spelling) the pun play on the sound “you”, e.g., the 2ps pronoun and the phonetic equivalent in “u”, matches the poet’s titular initials, EE-OO and serves as a self-identifying device embedded in the line.

  3. Now here is something I haven’t been able to answer all along. I must confess I’ve ignored the problem in my blog because the only other option would have been an house at the edge of the River Avon hold by Oxford but only until the end of the 1580’s. Good post, Whittemore!

  4. I just finished Alexander’s Waugh’s splendid new book, Shakespeare in Court, in which he announces this marvelous discovery. As I wrote in my Amazon review of his book, “it euthanizes what is left of the Stratfordian legend.”

    With some misgivings about the “spoiler,” I emphasize his truly monumental discovery of this original name for Hampton Court.

    We can expect the Stratfordians to carefully avoid addressing this new evidence!

  5. Rick, the corollary image, the “sweet Swan”, is that Oxford was identified with the French romance tradition of the “Knight of the Swan”. His father and he were instrumental in giving it an English idiom. The distinctive characteristic of this knight-errant or paladin was that his name was never to be disclosed.The swan does not voice until the last.

  6. As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up!

    It is crystal clear — linguistically — once Avon means a river, not just the one flowing through Stratford, everything else ‘Shakespearian” stands under suspicion. There may be a lot of things we still do not understand about the world of De Vere and Will Shakspeare, but ignoring what proof there is that there was a deception going on is intellectual dishonesty.

    I applaud Mr. Waugh for his deep reading and understanding of Jonson’s poetry and the Sweet Swan.

  7. The Swan is famous for being MUTE…

    • Yes. Hence the Knight of the Swan or anyone else never disclosing his name. Their convention was that a noble’s literary work would only be published posthumously.

  8. Mr.Whittemore,
    Do not recommend Waughs proposal. to the New York Times: I think there are better and more plausible explanations. I agree that Jonson in the Folio of 1623, mentioning of the “Sweet Swan of Avon”, was undoubtedly pointing – indirectly! – to Stratford-upon-Avon, suggesting that the poet came from a place near the river Avon. However, as in England several rivers named “Avon” do exist, the multiambiguity has been intended deliberately.
    Consider, that Samuel Daniel in “Delia”(1592 Sonnet 52), and Michael Drayton in “Ideas Mirrour” (1594 Sonnet 24) highlighted the literary celebrity of the river “Avon”
    Daniel: “…But Avon rich in fame, though poor in waters, Shall have my song, where Delia hath her seat Avon Shall be my Thames “..
    Drayton “…and Avon’s fame, to Albyons Clive is raysed”
    Both poems point to the literary circles around Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke at the ‘Wilton House’ in Wiltshire on Avon .There are signifcant connections between Mary Sidney and Marlowe


    • Thanks for the comment and information.

  9. For your consideration re Leland’s “Swan Song” (1545) which begins with:

    “My father was a swan … who begot me in April…. The mother who gave birth to me was a swan … named after the place where Isis has its sonorous ford [i.e. Oxford].”

  10. A further take on Mr. Waugh’s Avon via Leland and Camden may be found at http://noodlework.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/sweet-swan-of-avon-shakespeare-jonson-oxford/

    Many thank yous for your posting of Mr. Waugh’s find!

  11. Maybe I’m obtuse, but allowing that Ben Jonson’s reference to “Avon” does plausibly refer to Hampton Court Palace, how does that support the Oxfordian theory? The tie to Hampton Court Palace would appear to be equally strong whether the real author were Shapespeare or Oxford. Is this merely about undermining a reference that is linked to Stratford-upon-Avon?

    • I think first it’s realizing that Jonson is referring on the surface to Stratford and also however to the court at Hampton palace on the Thames, over a period of time dating from at least as early as the 1570s — which means Oxford. Interesting comment.

    • Hi alarob,

      Mr. Waugh found the key Avon = Hampton Court which unlocks two topographical river poems, John Leland’s “Cygnea Cantio” (1545) and William Camden’s “Tamae Isisque Connubio” (ante-1586), both of which intertextually contain several references to de Vere. AFAIK, there are no such intertextual references to Marlowe, Bacon, and/or William Shakespeare of Stratford in these two poems. Hampton Court, and when or if plays were performed there, is inconsequential.

      I hope you might consider reviewing my essay at http://noodlework.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/sweet-swan-of-avon-shakespeare-jonson-oxford/ Any comments, additions, and/or corrections would be much appreciated!

      Best wishes,

  12. A copy of Mr. Waugh’s essay “Sweet Swan of Avon” may be found at http://www.shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/wp-content/uploads/Waugh.Swan-of-Avon.pdf

  13. This is nice! Per William Vallans’ poem “A Tale of Two Swannes” (1590), near the end:

    “From hence by Hackney, Leyton, and old-Foord,
    They come to Stratford, cal’d also the Bowe:
    And underneath the bridge that thwartes the streame
    And partes the shires of Middlesex, and Essex both
    At last (though long and wearie was their way)
    They come unto the mouth of river Lee,
    Where all the Swannes of that part of the Thames
    Attend t’ see this royall companie:”

    Hackney and Stratford-atte-Bow are both in London.

    • Thanks for sending it on!

  14. So why was a monument to Shakespeare put in a church in Stratford?
    If he wasn’t the author surely his daughter , and others would ask ,
    Why are you putting this image of my father with a pen in his hand?
    Why would Droeshout create the monument, at all, and in the image first created by his father for the first Folio, .His family & friends must have been happy with the resulting statue ,& it’s literary themes.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful question. It seems the original monument was there in the church all along, showing John (or William) Shakspere holding a sack of grain. Such is one of the sketches or drawings made in the 17th century. The pillow with quill pen would have been added in the 18th century when the statue was removed for “repairs” of some kind. (By the way, doesn’t it seem odd that he would be writing on a pillow? Wouldn’t it be a little soft? Why not a “table” or tablet, not to mention a desk?). The writings that accompany the statue would indeed have been added (probably by Ben Jonson) in about 1622 or so, in conjunction with the folio.

      Given that I can’t seem to attach it here, take a look at my blog — I’ll post it there as the current blog. Let me know what you think.

    • Hi Lyn, see my reply (to myself, not intended) above….

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