It’s not everyday that anyone can say that a real bombshell has landed in the Shakespeare authorship debate. And, as some of our readers may be aware, the term bombshell has been thrown around loosely by some Oxfordians in the past year in discussing their theories about how and why the authorship problem came to be. But now, with the discovery of a poem apparently written by the 3rd Earl of Southampton shortly after his conviction for treason in the Essex Rebellion in 1601, such a bombshell may indeed have landed, and it’s for real.

In the Winter 2011 issue of the journal English Literary Renaissance researcher Lara M Crowley has reported on this discovery in her article, Was Southampton A Poet? A Verse Letter to Queen Elizabeth. In the article she reports that she found this heretofore unknown poem in a folio of manuscript copies of miscellaneous verses, compiled sometime in the early 17th century.

My friend and colleague Hank Whittemore has already written several posts about this article on his blog during the past week. I invite readers to check out what Hank has to say about how this discovery fits perfectly with his Monument Theory about Shakespeare’s sonnets, particularly that Sonnets 27 to 126 were written to Southhampton while he was in the tower following his conviction and death sentence in the Essex rebellion. I do not wish to repeat here what Hank is posting on his blog about this discovery. However what I do want to do is call attention to what the author Lara Crowley has to say in her article about the Essex rebellion, Southampton’s death sentence and reprieve, and the all-important question of how it came to be that Southampton was not executed. In other words, who saved Southampton?

In the first paragraph of her article Crowley notes the key question. She writes,

 “Southampton was the only conspirator tried with Essex and both men were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Essex was executed soon after, followed by several other participants, but, surprisingly, Southampton was spared .” (111)

When Crowley uses the word “surprisingly” she cuts right to the chase: why was Southampton not executed when most assuredly he should have been?

Just a few paragraphs later Crowley writes (after noting that it would seem unlikely that Robert Cecil would have interceded on Southampton’s behalf):

“It seems possible, even likely, that someone or something else influenced Elizabeth’s decision, making one wonder if, at his time of greatest need, Southampton — a ‘dere lover and cherisher of poets’ — composed what could be his lone surviving poem.” (112) 

The first part of the article is spent considering the question of whether this poem was actually written by the Earl of Southampton. She present strong evidence that indeed it was, evidence that includes the similarity in the language and arguments of the poem to the language and arguments used in Southampton’s letters to the Privy Council asking for mercy. This is tremendous supporting evidence for the Monument  Theory, for a key part of Whittemore’s argument has also been how much the language and argument of the Sonnets is similar to the language and arguments in these same Privy Council letters.

But it is towards the end of her article that Crowley, in a concluding section, really digs into this key point about “saving Southampton.” She notes, quite correctly, that what is missing for the years 1601-1603 is any record of who made the decision to spare Southampton, and why that decision was made (remember, the pardon was issued by King James — not Elizabeth — in April 1603). This section of the article (Section IV) is actually the longest section, running from pages 123-141, which is 19 pages in a 34 page-long article. It is in these pages that Crowley explores the question of whether it was Southampton’s writing alone (in either this poem or his Privy Council letters) that saved him, or, as she noted earlier, whether it was “someone or something else.”

To those of us who have been following this story for years this is extremely interesting, because Crowley arrives at the same conclusion that Hank Whittemore and I arrived at years ago — that there is no good reason for Southampton to have been spared, at least not based on the record handed down to us in history. The idea that Robert Cecil interceded to save Southampton out of sympathy alone is questionable, and Crowley herself does question it. She directly analyzes this historical notion that Cecil saved Southampton out of “sympathy,” and concludes that it is unlikely. In looking at Cecil’s letters to others about Southampton (letters in which he expressed some sympathy towards him), Crowley characterizes the letters as “self-serving,” and in talking about them as evidence she puts the word “evidence” in quotation marks, indicating her skepticism that these letters alone are proof that Cecil saved Southampton — or at least saved him out of “sympathy.” Especially revealing is this observation in a footnote:

” …while Cecil might have intervened for purely benevolent reasons, he likely expected some sort of compensation for his assistance, perhaps in the form of information, assurance of  position under James I, or even money. ” (138, fn69)

This is exactly what the Monument Theory proposes is being recorded and passed down to posterity in the Sonnets. The final couplet of Sonnet 120 is the key:

But that your trespass [i.e., your treason conviction] now becomes a fee,
Mine [my fee] ransoms yours, and yours [your fee] must ransom me.

In other words the Monument Theory proposes that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, paid a ransom to Robert Cecil to save Southampton, and this couplet records that fact. And the ransom? Hank and I believe that the ransom payment was Oxford’s agreement to be consigned to oblivion for eternity (“My name be buried where my body is,” Sonnet 72), and to accept — and participate in as “40” — Cecil’s secret correspondence with Jame
s of Scotland, resulting in James’ peaceful accession to the English throne (“Incertainties now crown themselves assur’d,” Sonnet 107). The ransom deal most likely followed close upon a “great reckoning” in a “little room” (AYLI, III.ii). Crowley, in her ruminations on the key question of how Southampton was saved, gets very close to the same conclusion in so far as she believes that more than just sympathy must have been involved.

This is why, in my opinion, both the discovery of this poem and the article written about it constitute as close to a bombshell as anything I’ve encountered in 30 years of studying the Shakespeare authorship debate and considering that the Essex rebellion is at the center of it all.

Readers should visit both Hank Whittemore’s blog and his Shakespeare’s Monument website for further information on this new poem and an overview of the Monument Theory. Readers are also invited to read my essay Unveiling the Sonnets in which I present some of the historical background that is integral to the argument that the sonnets are telling us the story of how Edward de Vere (“Shake-speare”) sacrificed himself to save Southampton, which is why there came to be a Shakespeare authorship mystery.

Bill Boyle