Third Earl of Southampton, significant patron of Shakespeare, and an active, quarrelsome member of the British court during the beginnings of Empire.
In 1581, his father the elder Henry Wriothesley died. His older brother already dead, Wriothesley was named Earl of Southampton at the age of eight.
Southampton grew up with a great love of litterature. He graduated from St. John's College, Cambridge, at the age of sixteen. Before graduating he took in a writer and tutor named John Florio. According to Florio, Southampton quickly learned Italian. As he joined the court and made London his home, he sought the company of writers and became known as a generous patron of the arts.
Southampton's relationship with Shakespeare is famous. Historians note him as Shakespeare's only patron of whom there is no doubt. Shakespeare's first recorded dedication to him precedes the poem Venus and Adonis. The language, however, becomes much more familiar and genuine in the dedication a year later, with his poem Lucrece. By this time we see a true friendship forming.
In 1594, when Shakespeare probably wrote most of his sonnets, Southampton was the central figure for aspiring poets. This and other clues suggest that Shakespeare had Southampton in mind, even in address, in many sonnets.
An outspoken courtier, Southampton found himself imprisoned a number of times for quarreling. While as a youth he made an immediate impression on Queen Elizabeth, he eventually fell out of her favor after fighting in her palace.
Southampton also got on the queen's bad side when he impregnated and secretly married an attendant of hers, Elizabeth Vernon. The queen had both arrested. Southampton was soon released, but no longer welcome at court.
The political and literary sides of Southampton met one fateful weekend in 1601. He and the Earl of Essex planned an uprising in the court to oust their opponents. Southampton paid The Globe Theatre's players to prepare a showing of Shakespeare's Richard II. The play went on that Saturday, a play about the deposition of a king. He hoped to rally the public for his revolt the next morning. The revolt completely failed. Southampton and Essex were arrested for the capital crime of treason. They were tried before a special commission at Westminister Hall, and sentenced to death.
Luckily that's not the end of the story. The queen's secretary, Sir Robert Cecil, sought mercy for Southampton. He testified that Southampton was merely following Essex's lead as an older, more influencial, more manipulative courtier. Southampton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but further mitigation was not to be sought as long as the queen lived.
Essex was executed, and Southampton spent two years in prison. When James I ascended the throne in 1603, Southampton was released and returned to favor in the court. There was much public support for him at the time; in fact Shakespeare's Sonnet 107 apparently sings of the liberation:
Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
Southampton went on to make history not just by supporting Shakespeare, but also by supporting ventures in the New World. While still in good favor with the king and queen, he was mistrusted by other top officials, which rendered him unable to find a meaningful office. Instead, he attended to side-projects of the court: In 1605 he helped equip Weymouth's expedition to Virginia. In the same year he was admitted a member of the East India company. In 1610 he helped to dispatch Henry Hudson to seek the Northwest Passage. In 1620 he was chosen treasurer of the Virginia Company. By that time the Hampton river and other Virginian geographies were named after him. He defended Virginia's charter against the Spanish ambassador, who of course had different ideas of who should control the American colonies.
In 1619, after bringing Southampton on a long visit to Scotland, the king acknowledged his abilities. He named Southampton a privy councillor, a position similar to that of a U.S. Senator. He could again oplay a more prominent part in domestic politics.
Southampton had an eventful time in office. He sat on committees considering the defense of Ireland. He fought for the Virginia Company again, but was unable to prevent the company losing its charter. On other matters, he fought bitterly with the Duke of Buckingham and was once again imprisonded, this time for six weeks.
In the following summer of 1624, Southampton died on an expedition with his son James, Lord Wriothesley. Pursuing a defensive treaty with the United States of Netherlands, they were travelling through Holland when both father and son caught fever. The younger died there in the low countries, and Southampton soon afterwards on the trip home with his son's body. They were both buried in Tichfield, Hampshire, that December.
source: Dictionary of National Biography