Mike A’Dair’s New Book “The Ashbourne Saga: A Cinematic Epic in Fourteen Episodes”

Ladies and Gentlemen, let us celebrate the publication of Mike A’Dair’s new book of “screenplays for a television miniseries,” dramatizing the heroic (and tragic) saga of Charles Wisner Barrell (1885-1974) — a major contributor to the fledgling effort to establish Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare” during the first half of the twentieth century. I could hardly put this book down and found myself reading through its 684 large-size pages in just a few days. The only thing better might be viewing a production of it on screen! In any case I hereby recommend The Ashbourne Saga ($49.99 on Amazon) for an absorbing, informative and emotional journey through the heart of the Oxfordian movement in its early stages.

The saga begins in London in 1847 with the discovery of the so-called Ashbourne Portrait of William Shakespeare, auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York in 1928 and purchased in 1931 by Henry Clay Folger’s widow for the new Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C..  The painting had already become controversial, with M.H. Spielmann having warned in 1910 that the aristocratic nature of the portrait precluded it from depicting the Stratford man; and in 1932 the Oxfordian author Percy Allen argued that it originally had depicted Edward de Vere but later had been retouched. Then in 1940 Barrell reported in the prestigious Scientific American that his investigations with X-ray and infra-red photography revealed the portrait had originally been that of a nobleman, Edward de Vere, but had been altered to better conform to the Stratfordian conception of Shakespeare. This was a bombshell in support of the Oxfordian case.

Barrell’s public triumph ultimately became his nightmare, however. In 1948 he brought suit against curator Giles Dawson of the Folger for suggesting in a letter that he had doctored his X-ray pictures.  Drawing upon the actual depositions for the dialogue, A’Dair provides a dramatic account of the arguments, leading to how and why the suit was dismissed in 1950. Devastated over having been unable to prove his case, and feeling he could never recover his reputation, Barrell stopped writing for publication. (My understanding is that he continued to research Oxford’s life for more than two decades, before his death at eighty-nine in 1974, but that all of that subsequent work was destroyed.)

Barrell had been a significant art critic in New York as well as a journalist and consultant for Bell Laboratories, also producing documentary films for Western Electric; but then he seized upon the authorship issue with enthusiasm and zeal. In a scene from this book in 1934, he confesses to his wife (Marie) and mother (Mary) that “the spiritual foundation of my life has dried up” and announces his new plan:

Barrell: “All I am interested in now is de Vere. So I intend, with your consent, and hopefully, with your blessing, to return to the life I led before journalism.”

Marie: “You would quit your job, during a depression? Now I know you’re loony!” (Playing scornfully on the name of J. Thomas Looney, founder of the Oxfordian movement with “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920.)

Barrell: “The life I’ve been living here, the daily grind, this isn’t why I was born. Mother, you know that I was born to write … There’s a transformation in our understanding coming and I want to be part of it.”

Marie: “And while you are out writing, how will we survive?”

(His mother pleads for calm while admitting that Marie “does have a point.”)

Barrell: “We have ten thousand dollars in the bank. If we live frugally, we’re good for ten years … I’d say that, within ten years, and hopefully sooner, I will have found something to cinch the case for Oxford.”

After adding that he will have to make several ocean voyages to and from England for research (his wife will make at least one trip with him), he gains their consent, but not before his mother issues a warning that will turn out to be prophetic:

Mary: “Well, Charles. You must do what you must do. But for myself, I’d rather you were researching anybody — Keats or Shelly or even Milton — anybody other than Shakespeare. To me Shakespeare is a sacred name, the greatest man who ever lived. For you to imagine you could chip away at that, knock Shakespeare down from his throne, well, they are going to laugh at you, Charles, and they are going to try to destroy you.”

Before that happens, however, Barrell will do some of the greatest research and express some of the most profound insights (in superbly written, eloquent essays) that the Oxfordian movement has generated. Along the way, as we follow his journey in this series of teleplays, at least two interrelated themes deserve attention: (1) Barrell’s discovery that Oxford’s mistress Anne Vavasour had given birth to his illegitimate son, Edward Vere, followed by his conviction that Anne is the “dark lady” of the Sonnets, making their son a second “fair youth” (the first being Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton); and (2) the growing division within the Oxfordian movement involving the so-called Prince Tudor theory of Southampton as Oxford’s unacknowledged royal son by Queen Elizabeth. In A’Dair’s screenplay, this division is dramatized in various ways up to the final dialogue in 1950 between Barrell and Charlton Ogburn Sr., an advocate of the PT theory (which, in 1952, he and his wife Dorothy Ogburn would set forth anew and expand in This Star of England).

In his introduction A’Dair explains that his “guiding interest” is not only to solidify the Oxfordian case but, as well, to “portray the human dimension of the people who made all these astounding and recondite discoveries.” The arguments against the Stratford man “did not drop down from heaven or bubble up from hell,” he writes; instead “they were won, slowly, by long, hard hours of tedious literary and historical investigation.” As a result, he adds, “I have found that effort heroic and I wanted to portray it in a dramatic work of cinematic art.”

Well, I’d say he has achieved that goal. True, there are no car chases, no bank holdups, no shootouts, no torrid love scenes; nonetheless, he has put together a work of emotional, intellectual and artistic integrity — not to mention that it stands as a record of this history that current and future students of the Shakespeare Authorship Question will find to be of interest and value.

I intend to write a full review of this book for a future issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Newsletter; meanwhile, I should add here that although the Folger Library has proclaimed that the Ashbourne Portrait does not depict “Shakespeare” but a former Lord Mayor of London (1627-28) named Hugh Hammersley, it is A’Dair’s conviction — based on the computer work of Mark Anderson for the cover of Shakespeare By Another Name (2005), his biography of Oxford — that Barrell “had been right all along” and that “the subject of the Ashbourne Portrait was Edward de Vere, better known to the world as William Shakespeare.”

In a real sense, then, as A’Dair points out, his current book of teleplays covering events up to 1950 comprise Part One of the entire saga, which, even today, has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. (See “The Ashbourne Portrait: Part II, by Barbara Burris.)

Mike A’Dair is a poet, playwright, screenwriter, independent scholar and author of Five Essays on the Shakespeare Authorship Question (2012). He attended California State University at Hayward and lived in San Francisco during the 1970s before moving to Willits, a small town on California’s north coast, where he still resides.

“A Father to His Secret Bastard Son .. The Poet’s Mistress Being Obviously the Boy’s Mother” — Charles Wisner Barrell, 1942

As readers of THE MONUMENT know, in my view there can be no doubt that the so-called Dark Lady of the Sonnets is Queen Elizabeth herself; and, in turn, that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford is creating this “monument” of verse to preserve the truth that Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton was his son by the Queen and, therefore, deserved to succeed her on the throne as King Henry IX of England.

By the early 1940s, the brilliant researcher Charles Wisner Barrell concluded that Anne Vavasour, who gave birth in 1581 to Oxford’s illegitimate son named Edward Vere, was the Dark Lady – a mistaken view that forced him to believe, incorrectly – that TWO younger men are being addressed in the Shakespeare sonnets: Lord Southampton and the illegitimate son of Anne Vavasour.


Ironically, however, these incorrect conclusions enabled Barrell to recognize some fundamental truths about the relationships in the Sonnets. Barrell concludes, for example, that Oxford and the Dark Lady are the father and mother of the young man “whose ‘face fills up the lines’ of at least forty-two of the poems.” The latter “is specifically described over and over again as bearing the closest possible relationship to the writer of the Sonnets, both physically and spiritually,” Barrell wrote, citing lines of Sonnet 22 by way of example:

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O, therefore, love, by of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from fairing ill.

Barrell goes on to say that although the poet and this younger man “bear a ‘single name’ and share an ‘undivided love’ – THE POET’S MISTRESS BEING OBVIOUSLY THE BOY’S MOTHER – there is between them a ‘separable spite.’ Their relationship must be kept secret to avoid a public scandal!”


Of course the real reason, according to the evidence in The Monument, is that Queen Elizabeth has refused to acknowledge Southampton as her son and heir. She has forced him to suffer “a bastard shame,” as Oxford writes in Sonnet 127, at the start of the Dark Lady series. Nonetheless Barrell was able to cite Sonnet 36, for example, to demonstrate the father-son relationship:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one…
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,

Nor thou with public kindness honor me,
Unless thou take that honor from thy name:
But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

“It would be difficult to find clearer expression of a heartbroken father’s renunciation of the open pride of parenthood in a charming and worth son born out of wedlock!” Barrell wrote, using the exclamation point as emphasis. He also cites Sonnet 39:

O how thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring?
And what is’t but mine own when I praise thee?

Even for this let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deserves alone.

“It is surely one of the most amazing anomalies of English literature that this realistic acknowledgment of a father’s relationship to his bastard son was not sensed by the earliest students of Shakespeare’s autobiographical poems,” Barrell wrote, calling this father-son relationship “one of the most dramatic and magnificently written personal tragedies in all literary history.”

I wish Barrell could have discovered for himself the far greater tragedy, in Oxford’s eyes, that his son by the so-called Virgin Queen was “in sleep a King, but waking no such matter,” as he describes him in the final line of Sonnet 87.

The point here, however, is that even Charles Barrell, who was unable to realize that Elizabeth is the Dark Lady of the Sonnets and the Mother of Southampton, the Fair Youth, could see plainly that the crucial relationship expressed in the sonnets was that of a father and his beloved son whom he could not name.

(“Shake-Speare’s” Own Secret Drama; Part 2: by Charles Barrell; American Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter, Volume 3, no. 2, February 1942; the five-part series reprinted in Building the Case for Edward de Vere as Shakespeare, Volume 2, “Nothing Truer than Truth,” Paul Hemenway Altrocchi and Hank Whittemore, 2009.)

Reason No. 34 to Believe the Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”: Fisher’s Folly and “The Cornwallis Book”

In 1580, when Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford was thirty years old, he bought a mansion in Bishopsgate even though he was virtually broke and already owned Vere House by London Stone, where he lived.  The extravagant second house, nicknamed Fisher’s Folly after its builder Jasper Fisher fell into debt because of its too-costly construction, is significant for at least these reasons:

As Charles Wisner Barrell suggested in 1945, it appears that Oxford acquired the mansion “as headquarters for the school of poets and dramatists who openly acknowledged his patronage and leadership.” 

It was Thomas Nashe who wrote in Strange News (1592): “I lurk in no corners but converse in a house of credit, as well governed as any college, where there be more rare qualified men and selected good Scholars than in any Nobleman’s house that I know in England.”

A Caricature of Thomas Nashe (1567-1601)

(It makes sense, I’d say, that “Shakespeare” would not have developed in a vacuum.  If we weren’t trapped in the much smaller world of traditional thinking, we’d very likely predict that the Bard would have had an ongoing “college” in a building with many rooms for writers — just as the great painter Raphael eventually had a workshop of fifty pupils and assistants, many of whom later became significant artists in their own right.)

Edward de Vere owned the Folly all through the wartime years of the 1580’s, as England prepared for the Spanish invasion – a time when many “history” plays (including several with the same plots and scenes as “Shakespeare’s” stage histories appearing in the next decade); and he sold it just months after the victory over King Philip’s armada in the summer of 1588.

This same period saw the great renaissance of English literature and drama by the so-called University Wits working under Oxford’s patronage and guidance – not only Nashe but also John Lyly, Thomas Watson, Robert Greene, Anthony Munday, Thomas Churchyard, Thomas Lodge, etc., leading to the sudden appearance of “Shakespeare” in 1593.

Caricature of Gabriel Harvey (1551-1630) with Nashe

De Vere sold Fisher’s Folly in December 1588 to William Cornwallis, a descendant of the eleventh Earl of Oxford; and in 1852 the scholar J.O. Halliwell-Philipps revealed his discovery of a small book of some thirty pages in the handwriting of Cornwallis’ daughter Anne Cornwallis, who had transcribed the work of various Elizabethan poets including Verses Made by the Earl of Oxford as well as an anonymous poem that would appear in 1599 in The Passionate Pilgrim, a volume of poetry attributed to Shakespeare.

When Anne Cornwallis and her family moved into Fisher’s Folly in early 1589, did she wander through the many rooms of the great mansion and find these verses in some overlooked corner of Oxford’s library?  Or were they tucked away in some desk in a room that one of the University Wits had used?

Halliwell-Phillipps originally estimated that Anne had transcribed the poems no later than 1590 – but since that date was probably too early for Shakspere of Stratford to have written them, he later extended his estimate to 1595.  Barrell countered with reasons why the earlier date is more likely.  He also showed that the poem Anne had transcribed is textually superior to the one printed later by Jaggard.   And it appears that her version is the only handwritten copy of a poem attributed to Shakespeare dating from the sixteenth century.

An Elizabethan oak chest of the kind where Oxford might have stashed a manuscript

Okay, so let’s see – we start with this theory that Oxford may have written the works attributed to Shakespeare … we see that he buys a mansion in London that he uses during 1580-1588 … and a woman who moves into the place in 1589 transcribes some verses made by Oxford and other poets, including lines to appear a decade later under the Shakespeare name!

As noted before in these reasons, this one is of course not “proof” that Oxford was the Bard, but it’s definitely one of the many pieces of circumstantial evidence that he was — and good enough to be Reason No. 34 to think so!

Final Stanza of Poem No. XVIII of Passionate Pilgrim 1599:

But soft, enough – too much, I fear –

Lest that my mistress hear my song;

She will not stick to round me I’ the ear,

To teach my tongue to be so long.

Yet will she blush, here be it said,

To hear her secrets so bewray’d.

Final Stanza of the Anonymous Poem Transcribed in Anne Cornwallis’ Little Book:

Now hoe, enough, too much I fear;

For if my lady hear this song,

She will not stick to ring my ear,

To teach my tongue to be so long;

Yet would she blush, here be it said,

To hear her secrets thus bewray’d.

2011 – The Big Year for Edward de Vere?

Happy New Year!  Many of my friends and colleagues (I include myself) in the “Oxfordian” world are starting to feel that this is going to be the “big year” for us — that is, for those of us who have concluded that Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) was the true author of the works printed under the name — the pen name, that is — of William Shakespeare.

Why has this ridiculously optimistic feeling come over us?  Well, let’s see…

First and foremost is that producer-director Roland Emmerich’s feature film Anonymous is set to open in theaters this fall — on Friday, September 23, 2011.  Here’s the idea of Oxford as “Shakespeare” finally on the big screen — for the first time in the ninety-one years since the earl was “identified” in 1920 (by British schoolmaster J. Thomas Looney) as the greatest writer of the English language.

Film director Roland Emmerich on the set of "Anonymous," due in theaters in September

Whatever any critic will say about this film, or however any individual viewer reacts to it, or to what extent it does or does not come close to the true history, is beside the point — which is simply that the Shakespeare Authorship Question itself will finally be brought out of hiding … out of the dark cave of censorship and suppression … into the daylight where everybody can see it and evaluate the subject for themselves.

You think this might be a bit of hyperbole?  A little over the top?  Well, when my friend Charles Boyle introduced me to the topic in 1987, I was stunned to hear about it.  Even though I’d gone through the University of Notre Dame in the Theater Department and the Great Books Program, no one had ever even mentioned that there might be a Shakespeare problem, much less that there had been a real-life eccentric, mysterious individual at the Court of Elizabeth the First who could have served as the model for Prince Hamlet.

Mark Rylance as Hamlet

How could not one of my professors or play directors have ever mentioned this to me?  Even if they thought the whole subject was nonsense, why wouldn’t they bring it up?  I ran to the public library (in Portland, Maine, where I lived at the time) and discovered to my shock that right there were at least a dozen books questioning the traditional attribution of Shakespearean authorship — and some fascinating books putting forth the theory that Edward de Vere was the true poet and playwright.

How could I not have known this before?  Over the ensuing years I would discover that many others had experienced the same wonderment — intelligent, educated, well-read men and women who had gone through more than half their lives without an inkling that William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon (1564-1616) might not have been the writer known as William Shakespeare.

I recalled having played the part of Laertes in our production of Hamlet at Notre Dame, and how I’d stood in the wings watching and listening to the late great actor Richard Kavanaugh playing the lead role — and I remembered a specific moment when I heard these lines spoken by the Prince to his young girlfriend Ophelia:

“I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.  I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.  What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?”

Right then it struck me that this was very candid stuff, and very modern in terms of the protagonist of a play, the so-called hero, being so self-critical.  More than that, within those words or behind them seemed to be the voice of the author himself, this great dramatist about whose identity and life I had never given any thought whatsoever!

And a few minutes later, during a break in rehearsals, I walked onto the stage and asked co-director Fred Syberg, “What do we know about Shakespeare?”

“Well,” Fred replied, “he was a guy who went to London and became an actor and started writing plays.  That’s about it.”

Uh-hunh, I thought.  Okay.  Sureand then pushed that little kernel of curiosity back into its cave, back into that darkness where it continued to be hidden from most of the world….

I’ll be back here soon, to continue the subject of why many Oxfordians feel that 2011 is going to be “the big one” for the Shakespeare Authorship Question … a year different from all the other years.  As Bette Davis tells the folks as Margo Channing at the party in All About Eve:  “Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

The Asbourne Portrait of "Shakespeare"

The so-called Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare (note the skull, as in the picture of Hamlet above) “was first brought to light by Clement Usill Kingston in 1847. The painting bore the date 1611 and purported to show William Shakespeare at the age of 47. Subsequently, it was widely reproduced during the 19th century, having entered the canon of Shakespeare portraits.  The identity of the artist is unknown.  It was subsequently altered to cater to
public demand for more pictures of the bard, and conform to 19th century ideas of Shakespeare.  In 1940, Charles Wisner Barrell made a searching investigation of the portrait using modern technologies and concluded the painting was a retouched portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Art historian William Pressly, who catalogued the Folger’s paintings, and directed the 1988 restoration of the work, states that the controversy surrounding the sitter’s identity was resolved in 1979, when restorative work on the painting revealed conclusively that it had been begun as a portrait of Sir Hugh Hamersley.  [Well, now … “conclusively”? – Hmmm– H.W.] The Folger Library dates the painting to 1612, and while stating that most researchers identify the painting’s subject as Sir Hugh Hamersley, notes that some Oxfordians contend it depicts Edward de Vere. It currently hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library.”  (From Wikipedia – emphases added)

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