The Northumberland Manuscript

A fascinating collection of manuscripts remains to us direct from Francis Bacon’s scrivenery of the 1590’s. The collection, which is in the form of an unbound volume, is referred to as the Northumberland Manuscript.[1] It was discovered in 1867 among some papers at Northumberland House, Charing Cross, and is now kept at Alnwick Castle in the possession of the Duke of Northumberland. A contents sheet, much scribbled -over, prefaces the collection and makes clear that some of the original contents were at some point removed.

The original contents included not only philosophical and poetic writings clearly known to be by Francis Bacon, such as his Essays and speeches for the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Sussex (presented at the Queen’s Accession Day Tournaments of 1595 and 1596 respectively), but also manuscript copies of two Shakespeare plays, Richard II and Richard III, a Nashe play, The Ile of Dogs, and what sounds like an unknown play, Asmund and Cornelia.

Written on the contents sheet is the famous long word used in Love's Labour's Lost, slightly shortened as ‘Honorificabiletunine’. (Love's Labour's Lost was acted at Christmas 1597 and printed in a quarto edition dated 1598. The play derived some of its story and the names of its characters from people known to Anthony Bacon.)

Adjacent to the entries for the Shakespeare plays there is written a line from Lucrece (‘revealing day through every crany peepes’), but using ‘peepes’ instead of the word ‘spies’ that was printed in the quarto of 1594.[2]

Moreover, the names ‘William Shakespeare’ and ‘Shakespeare’ are repeated several times, in various spellings, in the area of the Shakespeare plays and at the end of the contents list, as also are the names ‘Francis Bacon’, ‘Bacon’ and ‘Baco’. Not only is Francis Bacon’s name closely associated with the name of William Shakespeare on this private manuscript from Bacon’s scrivenery, but also the association of the Shakespeare name with plays as well as poems occurs on this manuscript before it was used in print on the plays. (The first use of the name ‘William Shakespeare’ on a printed play was in 1598.)

Regrettably these plays and Bacon’s Essays are amongst the manuscripts that were removed, the reason for their removal almost certainly being because these works were published in printed form in 1597, thereby making the manuscripts obsolete. The dating of the collection is no later than spring 1597, although it cannot be ascertained with certainty exactly when the collection was made. Some of the works go back as far as 1584 (e.g. Leicester’s Commonwealth).[3]

The manuscripts are copies made by several different hands, or scribes. Most of the writing on the contents sheet, which is also its front cover sheet, has been recognised as that of John Davies of Hereford, one of Bacon’s ‘good pens’, who besides a poet was a professional scrivener and the most skilfull penman of his time. His profession was to copy documents for his various employers and also to give instruction in the art of penmanship. One of his sonnets is addressed to 'the royall, ingenious and all-learned Knight, Sr. Francis Bacon', praising Bacon as a lawyer and poet.

Peter Dawkins, July 2005

(See also the author’s book, The Shakespeare Enigma)


1. See Collotype Facsimile and Type Transcript of an Elizabethan Manuscript preserved at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, transcribed and edited with notes by Frank J. Burgoyne (Longmans, Green and Co, 1904).

2. Shakespeare, Lucrece, line 1,086.

3. See The Northumberland Manuscript, by T. le Marchant Douse ( London, 1904).

The Francis Bacon Research Trust