Shakespeare Patronage

The Shakespeare group of patrons was the Walsingham-Sidney-Pembroke-Essex literary circle. They were patrons to a group of poets and writers. Collectively they were referred to as either the Wilton or Essex circle, the latter two names being derived from the principal places where they met.

Essex House was the London home of Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, who inherited the house from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the previous owner and Robert's step-father. The property occupied the site where the Outer Temple, part of the London headquarters of the Knights Templar, had previously stood , and was immediately adjacent to the Middle Temple, then one of the four principal Inns of Court.

Wilton House was the country home of the Earl and Countess of Pembroke, located near Salisbury in Wiltshire. Through the extensive grounds of Wilton House flowed the Wiltshire River Avon.

The Walsingham-Sidney-Pembroke-Essex literary circle, which had been linked with the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Philip Sidney until the deaths of these three in the 1580s, and with the ‘Areopagus’ of English poets that used to meet at Leicester (Essex) House, included:

  • Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, & Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton
  • Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, & Frances Walsingham, Countess of Essex
  • Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich
  • Lord Mountjoy [m.1605 Penelope Rich]
  • Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, & Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
  • Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford [& Ann Cecil (d.1588)][m.1591 Elizabeth Trentham]
  • Francis and Anthony Bacon

Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

Henry Wriothesley (1573–1624), 3rd Earl of Southampton, was the patron not just of Shakespeare but also of a whole group of writers and scholar–poets, including Thomas Nashe, John Florio and George Wither. He was a close friend of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. In 1598 Southampton married Essex’s cousin, Elizabeth Vernon. He bacame party to Essex's plot and insurrection, and, like Essex, was tried for treason. He was reprieved from execution after appeals by his mother and (in private letters and advice to the Queen) by Francis Bacon. Southampton never recognised Francis' help in this matter and never forgave him for the role he was compelled to play at Essex's trial as one of the Queen's Counsel Extraordinary.

Robert Devereux (1566-1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, was the eldest son of the 1st Earl and his Countess, Lettice Knollys. After his father died (1576) his mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1578. When Leicester died in 1588, Robert inherited Leicester House, renaming it Essex House. Robert carried on the use of the house (started by Leicester) as a meeting place for poets, scholars, writers and artists of various kinds, notably the 'Shakespeare circle'. Francis Bacon was a friend and adviser, and his brother Anthony Bacon moved into the house in 1595 to act as a voluntary 'Secretary of State' to Essex, running from there an intelligence network, a scrivenery and, it would seem, a literary studio. However, in 1599, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Essex began to act treasonably. He was put under house arrest in 1600, but then, even though pardoned by the Queen, with the help of Southampton he made plans to capture the Queen and take over the Court. The ill-planned coup began with his sponsoring a performance of the Shakespeare play, Richard II, at the Globe on 7 February 1601, in the hope that the deposition scene would give him support in the eyes of the citizens of London. He failed to gain the Londoners support and his ensuing armed insurrection was overcome. He was tried, condemned and executed on 25 February 1601.

Frances Walsingham (1567-1632), Countess of Essex, was the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's Secretary of State. Frances married Sir Philip Sidney in 1583, but after his death (1586) she married, in 1589, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. (The Queen, who disapproved of the marriage, never forgave Frances for this.) A year or so after Essex's execution for treason in 1601 Frances married Richard de Burgh, Earl of Clanricarde, an Irish peer.

Penelope Devereux (1563-1607), Lady Rich, was Essex’s golden-haired, black-eyed, beautiful sister. She was beloved of Sir Philip Sidney and referred to as ‘Stella’ in his sonnets.[1] In 1581 she was married by her guardian (Lord Huntington) to Lord Rich. After Sidney’s death in 1586 she became Mountjoy’s mistress for twenty years, eventually marrying him in 1605 after her divorce from Huntingham. She had six children by Mountjoy.

Charles, Lord Mountjoy (1563-1606) was a soldier, administrator and courtier. Like Oxford, he was an expert jouster in the tilt-yards. Although away on many campaigns, he was a patron of poets. He succeeded Essex as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland in October 1599.

Henry Herbert (?1538–1601), 2nd Earl of Pembroke, not only supported his wife’s patronage of poets but was himself the patron of an acting company, Pembroke’s Men. The company was formed about 1577, the year of Pembroke’s marriage to Mary Sidney, his third wife. By 1592 the company had in its repertoire several Shakespeare plays. However, the plague years of 1592 and 1593 forced the players to go on tour, but without sufficient success to keep the company going. They disbanded in 1594, selling their plays to other companies. The Shakespeare plays went to the newly-formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

Mary Sidney (1561–1621), who married Henry Herbert in 1577, thereby becoming Countess of Pembroke, was the sister of Sir Philip Sidney and niece of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. She was herself a distinguished scholar and poet as well as a patroness of poets and writers. She was trained in geography and medicine and had an interest in chemistry. Among the poets she patronised were Nicholas Breton, William Browne, Samuel Daniel and John Davies of Hereford. She translated the Psalms and the tragedy Antoninus (from the French version), and wrote a dialogue called Astraea to entertain the Queen on a projected visit to Wilton as part of a Royal Progress.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), Mary’s brother, wrote his Arcadia for Mary while staying with her at Wilton during her pregnancy. When he died before it was completed, she did not burn the work as he had requested but completed it herself (or supervised its completion) and had it published as The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia in 1593. It was widely influential and helped to inspire many of Shakespeare’s plays, notably The Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like it, King Lear, and the Romances—Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Sidney’s famous sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella, written c.1583–4 and published in 1591, influenced both Shakespeare’s sonnets and Romeo and Juliet.

Edward de Vere (1550-1604), 17th Earl of Oxford, was a ward of Burghley until he came of age. He was an excellent musician, poet and dancer, as well as an expert jouster. He married Burghley's daughter, Anne, in 1571. However, from 1574-6 he left his wife and travelled abroad, mainly in Italy, spending lavishously. On his return he had become a Roman Catholic and estranged himself from his wife and father-in-law. His debts were enormous. In 1580 he made Anne Vavasour, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, pregnant. He was sent to the Tower, but released on condition he returned to his wife. A reconciliation was made and four children were born to them before Anne's death in 1588, with Burghley providing a home and support for the family. From 1580 onwards Oxford interested himself in drama and supported a company of players taken over from Warwick. His secretary for a time was Lyly, who wrote plays for another company, the Oxford Boys (1585-4). Besides poetry, Oxford wrote plays, though none have survived. His theatrical activities and general extravagence put him even further into debt. Eventually the Queen bailed him out with a pension. In 1591 he married Elizabeth Trentham, another of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, and had a son Henry who succeeded him. Oxford was the hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England. He died in 1604.

Essex's execution in 1601 and the deaths of Henry Herbert and Anthony Bacon that same year, followed by the death of Oxford in 1604, reduced the group considerably. Henry's eldest son, William, became 3rd Earl of Pembroke on his father's death. His other son, Philip, became Earl of Montgomery. The Shakespeare First Folio of Comedies, Histories & Tragedies (1623) was dedicated to these brothers, William and Philip.

William Herbert (1580–1630), who became the 3rd Earl of Pembroke on his father’s death in 1601, was educated privately by Samuel Daniel and later at New College, Oxford. Like his mother, he became patron to a group of poets and artists; or, rather, he continued the patronage. They included 'Shakespeare' (i.e. Francis Bacon), Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Philip Massinger, Inigo Jones the architect, and William Brown, author of Britannia’s Pastorals. William went to Court in 1597, living in London from 1598 onwards. During this period he wrote verse, which was circulated privately among his friends. He was Lord Chamberlain at the time the Shakespeare Folio was printed, and therefore responsible for overseeing the production and publishing of plays and their performance at Court.

Philip Herbert (1584–1650) was created Earl of Montgomery in 1604. On his brother’s death in 1630 he became the 4th Earl of Pembroke. He was very different in character to William and in fact had little time for intellectual pursuits. His love was for sport and gambling, but he was also interested in overseas enterprises, being a member of the East India Company and supporting his brother’s participation in the Virginia Company. Like his brother William, Francis Bacon knew him well and was also a founder-member of the Virginia Company.

The poets patronised by the Wilton circle included, at various times: Edmund Spenser, John Lyly, Thomas Nashe, John Florio, George Wither, Nicholas Breton, William Browne, Samuel Daniel, John Davies of Hereford, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Philip Massinger, William Brown and Inigo Jones the architect. The other poets who contributed to the Shakespeare plays - John Fletcher, George Wilkins, John Day, Thomas Heywood, Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, Thomas Middleton and Robert Greene - were also at certain times part of the circle. William Shakespeare, the actor, was declared by George Wither and others not to have been a poet, but he masked the work done by the author 'Shake-speare', alias Francis Bacon and, for a time, Anthony Bacon, in association with the Wilton circle (i.e. the Shakespeare circle).

Peter Dawkins, July 2005

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


1. Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella.

The Francis Bacon Research Trust