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

3rd Earl of Southampton (1581-1624)
Born 1573 Died 1624

Henry Wriothesley, one of Shakespeare's patrons, was the second son of Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton, and his wife Mary Browne, daughter of the 1st Viscount Montague. He was born at Cowdray House, near Midhurst, on the 6th of October 1573, and succeeded to the title in 1581, when he became a royal ward, under the immediate care of Lord Burghley. He entered St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1585, graduating M.A. in 1589, and his name was entered at Gray's Inn before he left the university. At the age of seventeen he was presented at court, where he was soon counted among the friends of the earl of Essex, and was distinguished by extraordinary marks of the queen's favour.

He became a munificent patron of poets; Nashe dedicated his romance of Jack Willon to him, and Gervas Markham his poem on Sir Richard Grenville's last fight. His name is also associated with Barnabe Barnes's Parthenophil and Parthenope, and with the Worlde of Wordes of John Florio, who was for some years in his personal service as teacher of Italian. But it is as a patron of the drama and especially of Shakespeare that he is best known. "My Lord Southampton and Lord Rutland", (*) writes Rowland White to Sir Robert Sydney in 1599, "come not to the court ... They pass away the time in London merely in going to plays every day" (Sydney Papers, ed. Collins, ii. 132). Venus and Adonis (1593) was dedicated to Southampton in terms expressing respect, but no special intimacy; but in the dedication of Lucrece (1594) the tone is very different. "The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end ... What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours." Nicholas Rowe, on the authority of Sir William Davenant, stated in his Life of Shakespeare that Southampton on one occasion gave Shakespeare a present of £1,000 to complete a purchase.

Nathan Drake in his Shakespeare and his Times (1819; vol. ii. pp. 62 seq.) first suggested that Lord Southampton was the person to whom the sonnets of Shakespeare were addressed. He set aside Thomas Thorpe's dedication to the onlie begetter of the sonnets, 'Mr W. H.', by adopting the very unusual significance given by George Chalmers to the word begetter, which he takes as equivalent to procurer. Mr W. H. was thus to be considered only as the bookseller who obtained the manuscript. Other adherents of the Southampton theory suggest that the initials H. W. (Henry Wriothesley) were simply reversed for the sake of concealment by the publisher. It is possible in any case that too much stress has been laid on Thomas Thorpe's mystification.

The chief arguments in favour of the Southampton theory are the agreement of the sonnets with the tone of the dedication of Lucrece, the friendly relations known to have existed between Southampton and the poet, and the correspondence, at best slight, between the energetic character of the earl and that of the young man of the sonnets. Mr Arthur Acheson (Shakespeare and the Rival Poet, 1903) brings much evidence in favour of the theory, first propounded by William Minto, that George Chapman, whose style is parodied by Shakespeare in the 21st sonnet and in Love's Labour's Lost, was the rival poet of the 78th and following sonnets. Mr Acheson goes on to suppose that Chapman's erotic poems were written with a view to gaining Southampton's patronage, and that that nobleman had refused the dedication as the result of Shakespeare's expostulations. The obscurity surrounding the subject is hardly lightened by the dialogue between H. W. and W. S. in Willobie his Avisa, a poem printed in 1549 as the work of Henry Willobie. If the sonnets were indeed addressed to Southampton, the earlier ones urging marriage upon him must have been written before the beginning (1595) of his intrigue with Elizabeth Vernon, cousin of the Earl of Essex, which ended in 1598 with a hasty marriage that brought down Queen Elizabeth's anger on both the contracting parties, who spent some time in the Fleet prison in consequence. The Southampton theory of the sonnets cannot be regarded as proved, and must in any case be considered in relation to other interpretations (see Shakespeare).

Meanwhile in 1596 and 1597 Southampton had been actively employed, having accompanied Essex on his two expeditions to Cadiz and to the Azores, in the latter of which he distinguished himself by his daring tactics. In 1598 he bad a brawl at court with Ambrose Willoughby, and later in the same year he attended Sir Robert Cecil on an embassy to Paris. In 1599 he went to Ireland with Essex, who made him general of his horse, but the queen insisted that the appointment should be cancelled, and Southampton returned to London. He was deeply involved in Essex's conspiracy against the queen, and in February 1601 was sentenced to death. Sir Robert Cecil obtained the commutation of the penalty to imprisonment for life.

On the accession of James I Southampton resumed his place at court and received numerous honours from the new king. On the eve of the abortive rebellion of Essex he had induced the players at the Globe theatre to revive Richard II, and on his release from prison in 1603 he resumed his connection with the stage. In 1603 he entertained Queen Anne with a performance of Love's Labour's Lost by Burbage and his company, to which Shakespeare belonged, at Southampton House.

Southampton took a considerable share in promoting the colonial enterprises of the time, and was an active member of the Virginia company's council. He seems to have been a born fighter, and engaged in more than one serious quarrel at court, being imprisoned for a short time in 1603. He was in more serious disgrace in 1621 for his determined opposition to Buckingham. He was a volunteer on the Protestant side in Germany in 1614, and in 1617 he proposed to fit out an expedition against the Barbary pirates. In 1624 he and his elder son enrolled themselves as volunteers for the United Provinces of the Netherlands against Spain. Immediately on landing they were attacked with fever, to which both succumbed, the father surviving until the 10th of November 1624.

There exist numerous portraits of Southampton, in which he is depicted with dark auburn hair and blue eyes, compatible with Shakespeare's description of a man right fair. Sir John Beaumont (1583-1627) wrote a well-known elegy in his praise, and Gervase Markham wrote of him in a tract entitled Honour in his Perfection, or a Treatise in Commendation of ... Henry, Earl of Oxenford, Henry, Earle of Southampton, Robert, Earl of Essex (1624).

For further information see Memoirs of Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, in Boswell's Shakespeare (1821), xx. 427 sqq., where many of the elegies on Southampton are printed; also Nathan Drake, Shakespeare and his Times (1817), ii. 120; Sidney Lee, Life of William Shakespeare (1898); Gerald Massey, The Secret Drama of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1888); Samuel Butler, Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered (1899), where there is some distinctive criticism of the Southampton theory (ch. v.vii); an article by William Archer, Shakespeare's Sonnets. The Case against Southampton, in the Fortnightly Review (Dec. 1897); and Sidney Lee's article on Southampton in the Dictionary of National Biography, arguing in favour of his identity with the hero of the sonnets. P. Alvor in Das neue Shakespeare Evangelium (Munich, 1906), brings forward a theory that Southampton and Rutland were the authors of the Shakespeare tragedies and comedies respectively, and borrowed William Shakespeare's name to secure themselves from Elizabeth's suspicion.

(* Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland, a close ally and friend of Southampton.)

Being the entry for SOUTHAMPTON, HENRY WRIOTHESLEY, 3RD EARL OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.

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