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Shakespeare’s Patrons: Henry Wriothesley

Who were William Shakespeare’s patrons? Find out about one of them: Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. His portrait can be found in our Collections.

Gemma Sykes

To succeed at any artistic project in Tudor England you would need a patron; a patron was a wealthy aristocrat who could find you work and support some of your living needs. The reason patrons were so crucial was because it was equally important for an artist to have a reputation amongst elite high society as it was for them to be talented: writing plays would not be enough to ensure Shakespeare his reputation in the competitive world of Tudor England. The only way to achieve this reputation was to have someone who was a member of the nobility to vouch for you.

But why would a nobleman want to waste his time and money on supporting artists?

Firstly, it was fashionable. In Tudor England, style mattered. It was the aim of most of the elites to gain political power by situating themselves or their family members in the Royal Court, and how was one to attract the attention of the queen and her courtiers? By being the epitome of the culture au courant. Adhering to modern trends wasn’t just something some people did because they were interested, it was a necessity to get ahead in politics.

Secondly, it could be useful. Theatres were the main form of entertainment in Tudor England, and so were a fantastic way to address and influence a large audience; art was influenced heavily by politics and this was how the elites maintained their position at the top of the social hierarchy.

So, who was Henry Wriothesley?

Earl of Southampton
A 19th century copy of an earlier portrait of the Earl of Southampton.

Henry was a popular but controversial figure. He came from a Catholic dynasty - a major sticking point in post-reformation England. Since Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England, being a Catholic in England had become dangerous, and Henry’s father had been discovered helping the Jesuit Edmund Campion evade capture for heresy. From a young age, Henry had been raised by Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s chief minister, to save him from the ‘corrupting influence’ of his father. By 19, Henry was well established as a wealthy member of the court and was well known for his enthusiasm for literature; Shakespeare capitalised on this and sought to curry favour with him by including a foreword in his work Venus and Adonis, first printed in 1593:

'To the
Right Honorable Henry Wriothesley,
Earle of Southampton, and Baron of Tichfield.'

Then, in 1594, Shakespeare included an extravagant dedication to Henry in The Rape of Lucrece:
'The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end: wherof this Pamphlet without beginning is but a superfluous Moiety. The warrant I have of your Honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutord Lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours, what I have to doe is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater my duety would shew greater, meanetime, as it is, it is bound to your Lordship, to whom I wish long life still lengthned with all happinesse.'

Shakespeare’s sonnets make frequent reference to a ‘beautiful boy’, which many scholars have argued was supposed to be Henry. Henry’s last major part in influencing Shakespeare’s work came in 1601 when he encouraged Shakespeare’s acting troupe to perform Richard II (with its controversial deposition scene) on the eve of the Earl of Essex’s Rebellion. Essex hoped to force Queen Elizabeth to change her government ministers. Henry was arrested and remained in the Tower of London for the rest of Elizabeth’s reign. In 1603, on James I’s ascension, he was released, but he became less involved in court life and would have made a less beneficial patron for Shakespeare from that time forward.

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