Southampton: the Tower Poem of 1601 – 1603

Tower of  London. Photo:  Dr. James S. Ferris at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, Jan., 1965

Tower of London, Website, JPEG

                                                                           Fig. 1

To:  Yowre most excellente Magestye  From:  Henry, thy Heir

Tower Poem, HENRY thy Heir, JPEG

                                                                              Fig. 2

Tower Poem, H.W., ESCAPE, JPEG

                                                                             Fig. 3

HENRY, ESCAPE calculations, JPEG

                                                                            Fig. 4

   A recently discovered poem at present attributed to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earle of Southampton, was written sometime during the Earle’s imprisonment in the Tower (1601-1603) for his role as co-conspirator in the Essex Rebellion.  A committee appointed by the Crown heard his case, sentenced  Essex (Robert Devereux) to death by beheading, and gave Southampton an indeterminant sentence.  At the time, Southampton was facing, not just some amount of time in prison, but could anticipate being in the Tower for the remainder of his life.  Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, sat on this committee.  The vote was unanimous.

   When I first became aware of the poem’s existence,  I was able to locate an article (first published online, Feb., 2, 2011) entitled “Was Southampton a Poet?  A Verse Letter to Queen Elizabeth” (L. M. Crowley, Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University).  The link will provide you access to the article, as well as to an introductory note:

“The following poem is printed by permission of the British Library from MS Stowe 962 (fols. 47-48).  The  transcription from secretary script is mine (Crowley) .  Some abbreviations have been expanded.  The letters I (Crowley) have added appear in italics.”

Tower Poem, JPEG, #1

Tower Poem, JPEG, #2                                                                               

                                                                            Fig. 5 

[Crowley, . L. M. (2011), Was Southampton a Poet? A Verse Letter to Queen Elizabeth [with text]. English Literary Renaissance, 41: 111–145. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6757.2010.01081.x]

” . . . my brest: now lamed wth beatinge soe . . . “

Trojan Horse, vase, 670 B.C.E. JPEG

             Fig. 6 (Earliest picture (on a vase) of the Trojan Horse, circa 670 B.C.) 

My work with what I hereafter refer to as the “Tower Poem” follows the same assumptions used in all array work presented:

 Tower Poem, array assumptions, JPEG

   The Tower Poem, at present, is an evolving plaintext.  Modifications made in the future by scholars working with the poem will make changes affecting what I have found.  Until this happens, therefore, what I present pertains only to the plaintext above.

   In the years leading up to the death of Elizabeth, civil and military unrest gained momentum.  Flight into towns by those working in agriculture resulted from poor harvests and the increasing conversion of arable land to pasture.  The commercial class was heavily leaned on by the Crown for revenues to alleviate economic and defense needs.  Although the money was allegedly “borrowed”, many of these ‘loans’ were not being paid back.  Soldiers of previous conflicts returned home to find no available employment, people resented Elizabeth’s granting of monopolies to her elite favorites, and powerful men were jockying for power and control.  In 1601, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, supported by Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton staged a failed rebellion, were arrested, tried and condemned to death.  Essex was beheaded shortly thereafter, and Southampton remained imprisoned in the Tower.

   In 1602, Elizabeth became increasingly unable to keep a strong hold on her government, her powerful supporters were gradually dying off, and some of her best friends began to die as well.  In particular was the death of her close (if not closest) lady-in-waiting and confidante, who had served her for the length of her reign.  She died on February 25, 1603, about a lunar month before Elizabeth’s death on 24 March, 1603.  Anecdotal accounts of Elizabeth’s reaction to her friend’s death noted the extreme nature of her continuous weeping and inability to be consoled.  My guess is that the observed grief was more than just the passing of her close confidante, but was an expression of all her losses:  her increasing depression; knowledge of her own impending death; the execution, by her order, of Robert Devereux, one her most cherished favorites; and the confinement of Southampton to an indeterminant sentence to the Tower.  The Tower, of course, was the place of her mother’s (Anne Boleyn) imprisonment and beheading at the hands of her (Elizabeth’s) father (Henry VIII),  and where she herself was imprisoned for a time when, when young. The building itself  terrified her.  Doubtless a lifetime of such unresolved trauma added to the impact of her condition, as well as contributed to an earlier death.

   By 1601, Elizabeth’s power and control over her government and citizens approached a low point.  Although historical documents written by Elizabeth, testifying to her feelings and attitutudes are non-existant, one can surmise, at least, her increasingly poor health, the life-and-death consequences of her decisions as monarch, personal losses, lack of trust in her advisors, having to execute Robert Devereux (whom many suspect was her own son), and imprison Southampton (suspected to have also have been her son by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxenford) were then (as they are now) significant stressors preventing her from having normal and expected relationships with others, as well as negatively impacting her ability to exert monarchial competence in her daily activities.  Everything needed her attention and approval, yet she became increasing withdrawn in the last year of her life.  Doubtless others (those who wished more power and control).  To feel helpless and hopeless would have been expected.

   By January,1603, Elizabeth’s physical and mental health began to plummet.  In February she decided to relocate at Richmond Palace.  Her wish was not to have her youthful coterie of ladies attend her, but rather preferred older women, confidantes and those who had served her for years; those she could trust.

   It is unclear just when Southampton’s poem was written, as there is no heading or closing date on the document.  He does mention physical and mental symptoms/behaviors indicating the letter may have been written in the first few months of his imprisonment, in or about March, 1601.  He complains of the horrors of confinement:  of men forced to live in horribly small spaces, shackled and clinging to walls; getting released only to die; states how his body has suffered, his face furrowed with grief; of his continual beating of his chest; how his legges lack strength; how he has no interest in food, has disturbed sleep, and is constantly horrified and fearful.

   The poem reads like a list of horrors, written in complete despair, with perhaps one ray of hope, a last ditch plea:  that Elizabeth, being a great Prince, will forgive him, give him a pardon, and release him.

   Historical records do not say how Southampton was able to deliver his plea to Elizabeth, if this happened at all.  And, of course, we do not know who delivered it.  The content of the letter shows extreme despair as well as some vestige of hope.  However, once again, historical records do not reflect any further correspondence between the Queen and Southampton.  Until the Tower Poem recently surfaced, there was only speculation that some form of communication took place.  There is, however, speculation as to whether Southampton actually wrote the poem .  For all we know, someone else could have done either or both the writing as well as the delivery of the letter.  As to this regard, Edward de Vere, in the context of Prince Tudor theory, seems a likely participant, both in the poem’s writing, and in its delivery to Elizabeth.  And, if there was correspondence, then it was certainly clandestine, and not formal.

   But assuming the poem was written in the early months of 1601, was it delivered right away?  And if it was, what was decided (and by who(m) it certainly appears  Southampton was able to remain silent as to the contents and any Crown response; unless further letters such as the Tower Poem surface some time in the future.  I am personally inclined to believe most of the correspondence was oral, not written.  Considering the mystery surrounding the poem’s writing, who wrote it (Southampton or not; Edward de Vere alone, or with others), how was it delivered, what was the response (if any), and who was the intermediary in this life and death matter, what remains is a probable deception to keep any knowledge of the poem quiet, and this very deception is somehow behind the reason why Southampton was kept alive.

   Assuming the poem was delivered and read by Elizabeth in the early months of 1601, and in the absence of any documented controversy about the Earl’s confinement by anyone, there was likely some talking going on, the upshot of which was a possible ‘carrot-on-a-stick’ offered by Elizabeth; or, if she had no knowledge of the letter’s existence, by some power(s) in the government.

   At any rate, Southampton did not receive a pardon until James I succeeded Elizabeth to the throne and pardoned him in the days after her death on March 24, 1603.  This pardon (documented as to date of release in government records) given so quickly after Elizabeth’s death  in itself is suspicious.  The affairs of state by a newly annointed king would necessarily take much face time with counselors, as well as other pressing personal and public matters.  In any case, Southampton did not receive his pardon from the date of the writing of the Tower Poem until its delivery until approximately two years later.

   Did Southampton have any leverage with either or both Elizabeth and her powerful advisors?  If so, is there any evidence in the poem itself containing clues to the brokering of his release at some time in the future?  The tone of the Southampton letter is noticeably arrogant, to the point of giving terms for his release:  he wants Elizabeth to ‘cancell’, or drop, past offences as a matter of a Prince’s prerogative to do so a a matter of ‘grace’;  he mentions past crimes, crimes in the plural, unnumerated, but admitted to (what the heck just forget about these crimes he says, poetically at that; he says Elizabeth can do this because she is a great Prince, whose powers approach that of God; that she not only has the virtues of wisdom and valour possessed by common men, but has the superior virtue of mercy; that just like the Biblical tale of the miraculous healing of Naaman’s leprosy, she, too, has the power to do what she wishes.  All this is then followed by descriptions of life in prison, a litany of horror.  And, in lines 66 and 67 he galliantly states he would choose “to bleed” if a pardon came from anyone else but Elizabeth.  And why does he especially believe Elizabeth should spare his life and release him?  The reason:  “I thinke you worthy to give more.” No groveling.  No flights of his most competent poetry.  No remorse.  No hyperbole.  Not really persuasive.  Did he write the letter, or did someone with more clout lay out why Southampton should be forgiven and released?  Someone capable of provoking guilt.  And who best to succeed at that?

   After having searched and found ciphertext in the Tower Poem, the visible tone of arrogance and entitlement poetically written by an Earl convicted of treason against his Queen, becomes more readily understood.  In sum, Southampton does have bargaining power, and lays it out to Elizabeth and/or to who(m) the letter is intended for, in spades.

   Why risk putting anything in codes?  The cipher successfully manipulated by Sir Francis Walsingham resulting in the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots (a fact doubtlessly known to Edward de Vere, at one time a Crown spy trained by Walsingham himself, and the reason why de Vere was the only member of Mary’s jury to vote against  beheading her) — worked.  And who else but Edward de Vere to do the encrypting in order to save his alleged son’s life?  Furthermore, a letter addressed to Elizabeth would alleviate suspicion to a greater degree (in the chance it was intercepted before the intended recipient received the correspondence) than if he were to address it to anyone who might have been suspected of being part of some continuing anti-Elizabeth, anti-government faction plotting the overthrow of a sitting and annointed Queen.

Spear JPEG right

Page Two of the Tower Poem







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