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:
“SWEET SWAN OF AVON!” = “POET-PLAYWRIGHT OF HAMPTON COURT!”
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!
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):
“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.’”
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!