Wills and Harry: Descended from the Bard?

As the prospect of a new King gets nearer, speculation about the forebears of the two Princes is growing. Will there be a replacement for Elizabeth and Phillip not only royal but cultural as well? Could it be a case of Alls Well That Ends Well? as the unofficial heritage line is drawn back 400 years to draw in distant Tudor celebrities? Focussing As You Like It, as many now do, Wills and Harry could be seen as descended from the Swan of Avon.

To understand the strange links being made between Will and Harry and the world of Shakespeare a few hard facts are needed. Firstly, Will and Harry are descended on their mothers’ side from the Spencer family (Lady Diana Spencer being Princess Di’s maiden name) and they go back to Lady Penelope Spencer, nee Wriothesley. Secondly, Penelope was born in 1598 as the daughter of Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley, nee Vernon. Penelope married the Hon William Spencer, gave birth to a son in 1620 who inherited the title of Baron Wormleighton, and three centuries later the family became famous when Diana married Prince Charles. But beyond these basic facts, their Tudor roots become controversial.

The question is, who was the father of Penelope? Logically this should have been Lady Elizabeth’s husband, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, but this has always been mysterious. In 2007, the German historian Hildegard Hammerschmidt Hummel, having declared in an earlier book that Elizabeth Vernon was the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s sonnets, announced (in her book THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1) that Elizabeth’s daughter was not fathered by her husband – she was fathered by William the bard. Thus since Penelope was the original Lady Spencer and Diana her direct descendant, Wills and Harry were the descendants of William of Stratford, and Henry Wriothesley was a cuckold.

This came as a suprise to most Shakespeare scholars. There is certainly doubt about who Penelope’s father was. Elizabeth’s relationship with Henry Wriothesley was a stormy one. After a courtship from 1595 which annoyed the Queen, , Henry was embarking on a two year trip to Europe when Elizabeth announced she was pregnant.

Court rumours suggested that Henry was not the father, and a famous row with the courtier Willoughby broke out when Willoughby suggested that Elizabeth had been playing away. Nevertheless Henry returned in August to marry Elizabeth, and the subsequent birth of Penelope was generally put down to her husband – Penelope arriving on November 8th, nine months after Henry had originally left for the continent and 10 weeks after their marriage.

None of this convinces Dr Hammerschmidt Hummel. Shakespeare’s sonnets contain an emotional triangle between the poet, the Dark Lady and Fair Young Man. Dr Hummel see the Dark Lady as Elizabeth Vernon, and Henry Wriothesley as the Fair Youth. But while Elizabeth married Henry, it was William of Stratford who fathered Penelope while Wriothesley was preparing for his continental trip.

This lacks plausibility. Elizabeth Vernon was one of Elizabeth 1’s Ladies in Waiting, which is why Bess was annoyed about the goings on in her court. Given the rigid class divisions in Elizabethan England, a low status operative like a man of the theatre would never meet an aristocratic woman. Moreover, Elizabeth is described as “very feminine”, “strikingly emotional”, “doll like” and “pretty”, descriptions which fit the portrait of Elizabeth with long auburn hair and full red lips in the portrait in the collection in Boughton House (2).

But is this she the Dark Lady? Sonnet 130 paints a less than flattering portrait, commenting

“My mistress’ eyes and nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lip’s red;
If snow be white, why then her breats are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks….”

Not I think what Prince William is going to be writing in his diary after the wedding.

But this is not the end of the rumours. A second, less romantic theory is developing in the Shakespearian jungle. This is the so called Prince Tudor theory, which revolves again on Henry Wriothesley, but this time makes him not Shakespeare’s rival but his son. However the Third Earl of Southampton, while regarded in the Prince Tudor theory as the Fair Youth of the sonnets, is not the son of William of Stratford. In this theory he was born to Elizabeth 1 in the summer of 1574, the father being the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

The common assumption that Elizabeth was the virgin queen is being challenged in many ways by a revisionist wave of Tudor historians, but this variant has Elizabeth tied into the Alternative Shakespeare controversy by an ingenious twist. Oxford, it is claimed, fathered Wriothesley, but could never admit he had had sex with the Queen.. Wriothesley was secretly handed to the 2nd Earl of Southampton and brought up as the 3rd Earl – and in 1598 married Elizabeth Vernon and in this version of Tudor history fathered Penelope Wriothesley. From that point on normal history resumes and Penny starts the Spencer family line.

While rumours that Elizabeth was not the Virgin Queen circulated in the late Tudor period and have been long discussed, none of the rumours relate to a birth in 1574. The Queen was 41 and the Earl of Oxford 24 and married, albeit unhappily. But whatever the facts of the relationship, it has suited the supporters of De Vere as Shakespeare, since it allows them to argue that Oxford had to remain anonymous and conceal his authorship of the corpus, palmed off on William Shakespeare, who was a real if minor character in the London theatre. In this line of thinking, Oxford becomes the poet in the sonnets, he is writing them to his son as the Fair Youth, and Elizabeth Vernon can be slotted in as the Dark Lady. Thus Penny Wriothesley is still the descendant of Shakespeare, but in the person of Edward de Vere who fathered the 3rd Earl of Southampton with the Queen, Henry despite being Prince Tudor is brought up not knowing his Royal parentage.

It is fair to say that the Prince Tudor theory is highly controversial even among supporters of Oxford as an alternative to Shakespeare. The idea that De Vere as an aristocrat wrote the poems but concealed his identity because he was the father of the Queen’s son seems far fetched even to many of his supporters. But the Prince Tudor theory has undoubtedly helped make Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the current leader of the pack of Alternatives to William Shakespeare, somewhat ahead of Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe.

And while the idea that de Vere had to stay anonymous because he had fathered a child with the Queen is not one likely to win much support among Shakespeare scholars, it got a big boost from film maker Roland Emmerich. His Hollywood blockbuster ANONYMOUS took just that theory as its central theme. Moreover, since the writings of the American Oxford supporter Paul Streitz (3) have argued that Elizabeth had six chldren, the first being Edward de Vere who then committed incest with his mother to produce Henry Wriothesley, the controversy may make that around THE DA VINCI CODE look small beer.

On this theory, Princes William and Henry are descended from Elizabeth 1. Or on the alternative theory, William of Stratford is their ancestor.. Or just possibly none of of Shakespeare, Edward de Vere or Good Queen Bess. But the conspiracy industry is working overtime, and extending back into the Tudor period. There are real historical and epistemological issues to be resolved around late Tudor History, but they are in danger of being lost in the attempt to link the Princes with incest, adultery and rampant sexuality over 400 years ago.


1) The Life and times of William Shakespeare, Chaucer Press 2007 p182
op cit p177
Paul Streitz. Oxford, Son of Elizabeth 1, Oxford Institute Press (USA) 2001.

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