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The Shakespeare Family History Site

Shakespeare’s Dark Secrets - Revealed

by Arthur Marlowe


An age of romance

“For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who are as black as hell, as dark as night.”

Ever since William Shakespeare wrote his venemous sonnet 147, the hunt has been on to identify the woman “as black as hell, as dark as night” who was at the heart of a love affair which blossomed and faded more than 400 years ago.

Many have tried and failed, following false trails and stumbling through a maze of misinformation. The Dark Lady remained a wraith-like creature with a veil drawn across her features. Why, then, should anyone spend over 40 years trying to establish the identity of this elusive seductress of the sonnets?

Well, perhaps modern technology can help solve the mystery which has defied conventional investigation. I turned to ground radar scanners, proton magnetometers, endoscopes and aerial photography to assist my archaeological exploration. It has meant digging up facts - and bodies - along a route littered with pitfalls.

But now I believe I know the Dark Lady’s identity. And, what is more, I know where she is. The problem is that proving it means opening a tomb that church authorities seem determined to keep sealed, even though the coffins in the tomb could contain the most momentous artefact of English history - an unknown, original Shakespeare sonnet.

I have tried to gain permission to open this tomb, but without success. In the interests of archaeology, as well as literary knowledge, I believe it should be opened, so that this mystery can be cleared up once and for all.

Often, over the years, I discovered I was the first person in centuries to set eyes on wills and testaments which had laid undisturbed in archives. I also learned that evidence had been destroyed. The Dark Lady was at the heart of my research, but, of course, the other subject of Shakespeare’s affection in the sonnets, the Fair Youth, played a prominent role. Who was he and what contribution did his relationship make to the poet’s passionate prose?

Opening long forgotten vaults, I saw nameplates had been removed from coffins and attempts made to burn skeletons with lime. The contents of archives had been burned in the Civil War and the documents which went up in smoke referred to a specific period concerning the history of the woman I believe was the Dark Lady and her family. The material before and after this period was untouched.

It is true that, sometimes, while reading letters from the past, you feel you are prying into private correspondence, but this must be done to extract the truth and despite the obstacles and disappointments, I have found sufficient evidence to convince myself that the Victorians encouraged a myth to develop about Shakespeare...that because he wrote such elegant prose, he could not have been remotely interested in the basic desires of the flesh.

I don’t accept this at all. It should be remembered that he was living and working in the most exhilarating period of English history, surrounded by glittering personalities and by all the temptations that success could bring. The contention that this brilliant playwright and poet was also a red-blooded Renaissance man as emotional as other eminent Elizabethans may hardly raise an eyebrow in these permissive times. To the Victorians, the thought that he indulged in a tempestuous romance with a lady of the court was disturbing enough, but the very suggestion that one with so lofty a reputation may have had bi-sexual tendencies was too much for them to stomach.

My contention is that they were determined to cover up the whole saga.

The fact that he was married while everything was going on served only to strengthen their resolve to remove the evidence. They would try to forget, even if they could not forgive.

Someone once said that behind every successful man there is a woman. This is exactly where my research is aimed: find the lady (in this case, the Dark Lady) and you may find out about the man. And, at the same time, through her contemporaries, discover what Shakespeare was like as a person. The friends of Shakespeare are so real to me after all these years that, whenever a particular enquiry may help my case, I say to my team of helpers: “Let’s dig down and have a chat with whoever’s there.” You can learn an enormous amount by examining old remains. The “shades” of Shakespeare’s colleagues still have plenty to say.

A great deal of my work might not have been necessary if the Victorians had not adopted such a prudish attitude. They wrote articles and books arguing that Shakespeare imagined a love triangle...that no Dark Lady or Fair Youth really existed. They wanted to maintain the clean-living image of their idol at all costs. Yet, other scandals of the years between 1595 and the end of the 16th century are fully recorded in existing letters written by contemporaries. For instance, the Earl of Essex, favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1, had affairs with three of the Queen’s maids of honour. These romances are mentioned in the letters, as is the enforced marriage of the Earl of Southampton when his lady-love was found to be pregnant.

Thus, it can be seen that liaisons of the dangerous kind abounded in the naughty Nineties. It fact, it was regarded as quite normal for such dalliances to take place at court. Even today, should you wander along the passages of Hampton Court, you will see wall bars at which members of court used to rest to await an audience with the Queen or Cardinal Wolsey. But, if you ask the guide about these bars, he may tell you about their other use - as leaning posts for lovers.

Elizabeth’s court was brimming with men and women in their late teens and twenties. They had little more to do than attend parties, balls and the theatre. They were more interested in having a good time than in boring court work. Indeed, but for the determination of Lord Salisbury and a few others, the court administration could well have collapsed. Even Elizabeth seemed to encourage the fun. It should not be forgotten that she was the daughter of Henry Tudor, whose womanising and visits to London’s brothels are well documented. Some of the parties of those days went on for the best part of a week. There was food and drink aplenty and the young court crowd used to ride off into the “sticks” for a three or four-day spree before returning to London...for another party! It was one wild, social whirl.

The Queen filled her court with people who interested her, including personalities such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, although I am not inferring that Drake and Raleigh were involved in the high jinks. Shakespeare was a different matter. He was not on the high seas or in some distant land. He was right there in the middle of all the glamour and gossip.

For their part, the women at court did more than merely decorate the scene. The Queen demanded that they be intellectually stimulating. One such person was a maid of honour called Mary Fitton. She was a popular choice as the Dark Lady for many years, but gave ground later to other candidates. For example, it was suggested that an innkeeper’s wife, Mrs Devanante, from Oxford, was the woman in question, chiefly because one of her several children was named William and he became a poet. The boy studied at Oxford and wrote two or three tragedies, but none of note.

Another name put forward is that of Anne Whateley, or Whitely, who lived at Temple Grafton, near Stratford upon Avon. Shakespeare was said to have been courting her before Anne Hathaway came along and the poet dropped Mistress Whateley in a rush to marry Anne Hathaway because the latter was pregnant. Let us examine the claims of these women.

According to what we are told, Shakespeare, while making trips from Stratford to London, often called at an inn in the Cornmarket at Oxford. This inn, The Crown, was kept by a John Devanante, once a scholar of the Merchant Tailors School in London. He was a freeman of the company, says Sir Sidney Lee in his “The Life of William Shakespeare.” He claims the mine host of The Crown was of a depressive disposition, whereas his wife was just the opposite, a beautiful extrovert, blonde and buxom.

She was the type of woman who might well have attracted gentlemen customers to the inn. Apart from Shakespeare, the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Pembroke also found their way to The Crown. For John Devanante, it was his second marriage. His first, in 1591, was to an Anne Sackfeilde, of Bristol, who died childless. Then, some years later, he married Jane Shepherd, who came from Durham, and they had four sons and three daughters.

Shakespeare’s frequent visits to the inn fostered personal friendship with the family and no doubt there was some local gossip when the fourth son came along because he was named William and the poet stood as his godfather. It is said that, years after, William Devanante was crossing The Common at Oxford when he bumped into one of the dons and knocked him over. The irate gentleman picked himself up and said: “William, why the hurry? What is the matter?” To this, the boy replied that his godfather was coming that day and bringing him many presents. The don, still annoyed, retorted: “Boy, do not take the name of the Lord God in vain.”

Was this a cynical allusion to Shakespeare? Had rumours of a relationship reached his ears? Whether, in fact, William Devanante was the result of a romance between Shakespeare and Mrs Devanante is impossible to say. But, given the promiscuous age in which the poet lived, I would be surprised if he rejected the opportunity of bedding the innkeeper’s wife if she were as attractive as the contemporary writings would have us believe. Yet, she falls short of the mark when held up to scrutiny as a true contender for the title of the Dark Lady. A passing, enjoyable fancy perhaps, but not the all-consuming, passionate figure of mystery so powerfully described in the sonnets.

Anne Whateley, the illegitimate daughter of a Coventry woman, whose surname was Beck, and a much travelled Elizabethan, Anthony Jenkinson, of Market Harborough, Leicestershire, belonged to a religious teaching order and taught at a school for girls at Hillborough Manor, in the parish of Temple Grafton. It is said that it was here, in June, 1581, she met William. A year later, he took out a special licence to marry her, but we know the marriage never took place. Why?

For a long time now, there has been a debate about a recorded entry in the Bishop Worcester’s register, issuing a licence authorising the marriage of a William Shaxpere and Anne Whateley, of Temple Grafton, on November 27, 1582. In that year, Shakespeare was 18 and Anne Whateley 21. The very next day, the same bishop’s register records that a bond for the marriage of a William Shagspere and Anne Hathaway was applied for by Fulcone Sandells and John Rychardson, both of Stratford. They bonded themselves in the bishop’s consistory court for a surety of £40 to free the bishop of all liability should a lawful impediment, by reason of any pre-contract, be disclosed.

We should not worry about the spelling of the surnames Shaxpere and Shagspere; Shakespeare’s name was spelt in various ways. The question is: Did our young poet suddenly find himself in a marital mix-up? While courting Anne Whateley, was he also dallying with the older Anne Hathaway, who was seven years his senior? And, more to the point, what was the reason for the odd turn of events? Could it be that Anne Hathaway was pregnant?

Perhaps his indiscretions had caught up with him and he was forced into a shotgun marriage. I subscribed to this view for many years, but my most recent research has raised doubts about this. First, however, let me refer to a newspaper report from the 19th century in which it is related that a certain Ignatius Donelly asserted the poet actually married Anne Whateley. The story was told to the Shakespeare Club, of Stratford, by a gentleman called Joseph Hill, from Perry Barr, Birmingham. Mr Hill said that, when the entry recording the licence was found in the bishop’s register, “the doubters rose in the majesty of their strength and the claims of Shottery, which had lasted 300 years, were, to use their own words, ‘more than threatened’; nay, he found some writers had invented a William Shakespeare, of Temple Grafton, to work the theory a little smoothly.”

Mr Hill goes on to tell the august gathering at the Red Horse Hotel, Stratford, about the journey made by Shakespeare and the two “young friends”, Fulcone Sandells and John Rychardson, to procure the licence from Worcester - three months after he had married Anne Hathaway! “There was not the smallest particle of doubt that the real marriage took place in August, 1582 and the ceremony in the church about 1st December following” (it was the custom of the time to wait a few months). But a William Shakespeare did take out a licence to marry an Anne Whateley - the records show it. So, was it the same William or could there be another explanation?

In his book, “The Life of William Shakespeare”, Sir Sidney Lee expresses the opinion that the husband of Anne Whateley cannot be reasonably identified with the poet. Following my own research, I tend to agree - he was most probably another of the numerous William Shakespeares who lived in the diocese of Worcester which covered a wide area and was honeycombed with Shakespeare families of all degrees of gentility. The William Shakespeare whom Anne Whateley was licensed to marry was probably of a superior station, to which marriage by licence was deemed appropriate.

My investigation narrows down the area from where this other William Shakespeare may have come. In Rowington, some 10 miles north of Stratford, it was well known that between the 16th and 17th centuries, there were Shakespeares who lived at Shakespeare Hall, a half-timbered house occupied by John Richard Thomas and four William Shakespeares! The last William Shakespeare lived there around 1740 and there is reasonable evidence to assume that this family was connected with that of the poet. Therefore, the William Shakespeare who took out a special licence to marry Anne Whateley, of Temple Grafton, was, in all probability, not the poet but a kinsman of the same name from Rowington.

It is believed that Shakespeare’s grandfather, Richard Shakespeare, moved from Wroxhall - which is a part of Rowington - to settle as a farmer in Snitterfield, four miles from Stratford, in 1535. He died in February, 1560, leaving goods and debts to his son, John, who was Shakespeare’s father. John then left Snitterfield to seek a career at Stratford upon Avon.

During the course of my research, I obtained wills of the Shakespeare families of Rowington and Wroxhall from the Worcester archives. Among them were those of John Shakespeare (1574), Richard Shakespeare (1592), Joane Shaxper (1599), William Shakespeare (1599) and Thomas Shakespeare (1614). It appears, from translation of the wills, that most of them were farmers.

I also obtained the existing wills of the Whateley families. One family had lived at Stratford upon Avon, two at Wooton Wawan and the rest at Henley in Arden. None seemed to be connected with Anne Whateley, of Temple Grafton, but, in the printed parish register of Rowington and Wroxhall from 1616 to 1812, there is an entry from the bishop’s transcript of 1629, under burials dated “20th Maie”, about the “wief of William (Shaxpir)”. Could this wife of William (Shakespeare?) have been Anne Whateley? Unfortunately, the woman’s forename has been obliterated.

There are two pieces of documentary evidence which suggested that Richard Shaxpeare did, in fact, originate from Wroxhall and settle in Snitterfield. Ryland, in his “Records of Rowington”, states that he translated a very interesting survey which appeared to be a tax return dated 1548. Richard Shaxpeare was mentioned as a visiting non-resident which suggests he was staying with kinsmen. Ryland also states that John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, returned to Rowington in 1568 to serve as juror in a case concerning tithes of the manor house where his close friend, Hamnet Sadler, was a tenant. It is interesting to note that William Shakespeare named his only son, Hamnet, after his father’s friend.

My research uncovered other wills and a bond of the Shakespeare families of Rowington and Wroxhall, as detailed here: bond, William Shakespeare, of Warwick (1579); will, William Shakespeare, of Wroxhall (1609); will, William Shakespeare, of Wroxhall (1612); will, William Shakespeare, July 11 (year lost); will, Richard Shaxpeare, weaver (1560); inventory, Richard Shaxpeare (1613); inventory, Richard Shaxpeare, of Rowington, the elder (year lost); and will, Richard Shaxpeare, the elder (1591).

The examination of these wills does not provide proof of relationship to the Stratford families, but strongly indicates that the majority were involved in agriculture. One Richard was a bailiff and one William a weaver. The reason for mentioning all these wills is to give an indication of the number of Shakespeares living in the area in the 16th and 17th centuries.

An examination of the bishop’s transcript by the archivist at Worcester revealed that the portion of the page containing the burial entry referring to the wife of William (Shaxpir) has disappeared since Mr Ryland published his book in 1899-1900. Either it has been damaged in storage or torn off deliberately. This is very disappointing as the staff at the forensic laboratory in Birmingham said they were certain they could have revealed the obliterated name of the “wief” with their modern techniques.

There has been plenty of debate about which church William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway chose for their marriage. Edmund Maloney’s 1821 biography of the poet suggests they were wed at All Saints, Billesley, or the church of Weston upon Avon, near Luddington. Edgar Flower, who was chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in early Victorian times, thought the poet was married in the small chapel at Luddington, but author R. B. Wheler, in his book about Stratford, said he had never heard of this belief; he said that, as far back as Malone’s biography in 1798, Billesley was the most likely venue.

I took a team of investigators to Billesley in 1990 to explore the site and check out the theory. Groundscan, of Maidstone, did the radar surveys and the photography was by Optical Fibres, Olympus KMI, of Southend. The RAF Reconnaissance Unit, from Huntington, pitched in with aerial photography and I even had help from satellite photographs supplied by the National Remote Sensing Laboratory, at RAF Farnborough.

But, after considerable examination of all the information, all I was able to show was that the church did not appear to have a parish register for the relevant period. The computer centre of Leicester University, using variables, year, population and distance, rated the chances of a register in 1590 as only 0.42%, which was disappointing to say the least. So, the arguments still continue about where Shakespeare was married.

As a matter of interest, Anne Whateley died in 1600 at the age of 39 and may have been buried at Ashton, in Northamptonshire, or the chapel at Hillborough (this is the chapel of St Mary Magdelen which was pulled down in the Elizabethan period by John Huband). Although she is quite an intriguing figure, there are so many imponderables about Anne Whateley that she cannot be seriously considered as a Dark Lady candidate.

Another contender sometimes put forward is Lucy Morgan, otherwise known as Black Lucy, of Clerkenwell, or Lucy negro-abbess de Clerkenwell. A negress and a prostitute, she ran a brothel frequented by the court’s gentry and the argument in her favour is the colour of her skin, thus a dark lady. It is also known that she was at Hampton Court, if only for a year. A document in the Records Office, in London, reveals that she was a servant at the palace from 1581 to 1582 and that, on a particular occasion, received a sum of 6s 8d. For what, we do not know, although her later activities may give us a clue. But I dismiss her from the list because we are seeking a gifted intellectual and a companion of the Queen, not a servant girl who became a brothel keeper.

Mary Fitton was the first of the Dark Lady contenders for several reasons, mainly because so much was known about her. She had striking looks, she was tall and she was intelligent - and she soon became a firm favourite at Elizabeth’s court.

There is a painting of her aged 15, two years before she entered court, another picture at the aged of 18 and yet a third when she is seen in procession a few steps behind the Queen, leading the ladies-in-waiting. There are love letters written about her, addressed to her elder sister, Anne, and she is probably referred to in Shakespeare’s “Love Labour’s Lost” when the word “fit” is used in the form or an apparent pun (act lV, scene 1, line 145) - it was fashionable at the time to apply double meanings to names and words. Another instance of this can be seen on the tablet of one of the monuments to the Fittons in parish church at Gawsworth, Cheshire. The inscription reads: “Whose solve’s and Body’s beauties sentence them Fit ones to wear a heavenly Diadem.”

Thomas Tyler, in “The Herbert-Fitton Theory”, emphasises that the name Fitton was taken contemporaneously to mean “fit one”. This is further illustrated in sonnet 51 when Shakespeare talks of his “triumphant prize” which been interpreted to allude to Mary Fitton’s high position as a maid of honour. If we look at the phrase with the knowledge that puns were popular, we can see that innuendo and suggestion were the keywords of the day and who better at manipulating the English language than Shakespeare himself?

Letters written by courtiers of the late 16th century may have disappeared, but the greatest evidence of all concerning the bard’s involvement in a sex triangle is contained in his sonnets, which provide clues to the identities of the Dark Lady and Fair Youth without actually naming them. Sprinkled throughout the lines of these 154 items of verse are intimations of romantic dalliances.

Sonnets 1 to 126 tell how Shakespeare loved a youth of rank and beauty, whereas the remainder of the sonnets concern an overwhelming infatuation with an attractive woman. The two sets of sonnets are bound together by a story which is told in both - how the Fair Youth was seduced by the Dark Lady and how Shakespeare forgave the boy, but was tormented by the treachery of the Dark Lady.

In sonnet 20, we read:

“A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted
Has thou, the master-mistress of my passion:
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature as she wrought thee, fell a-doting”

Later in the same sonnet:

“Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.”

What clearer picture could one require than this of a loving address to an effeminate man?

Shakespeare even says how long the relationship lasted with his young “master-mistress”. Sonnet 104 opens by telling his “fair friend” that:

“You never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still.”

Then he adds:

“Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.”

So, they had been close for at least three years. But, what of the Dark Lady? Sonnet 135 relates:

“Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy ‘Will,’
And ‘Will’ to boot and ‘Will’ in overplus;”

Shakespeare was clearly smitten by the lady’s charms and certain scholars suggest the reference to “Will” means his sexual prowess.

Sonnet 136 continues the story:

“Will will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one...
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me for my name is Will.”

Dewy-eyed words, indeed, but the tone of the ode changes dramatically in sonnet 137:

“If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgement of my heart is tied?”

The word “ride” has obvious sexual connotations and the final line of this damning verse goes:

“And to this false plague are they now transferred.”

“Plague” in this context means mistress. Therefore, it can be appreciated that Shakespeare was fully aware that he was not the only man in the Dark Lady’s love life, not by any means. However, if any further confirmation is required that the poet endured two intensely passionate affairs, sonnet 144 reveals:

“Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.”

There we have it - a love for a man and a woman. The sonnets indicate that he found the company of the man more agreeable than that of the woman and he leaves one in no doubt that he had scant regard for the Dark Lady’s wiles in tempting away his “right fair” angel.
Sonnet 134 confirms:

“Him have I lost, thou has both him and me:
He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.”

Then, in sonnet 147:

“For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.”

It could be argued that Shakespeare is expressing his anger here at his young friend whom he described as a man “right fair,” but following the tirade of sonnet 144, it is clear that the literary dagger is aimed at the corrupting woman’s heart. First, Shakespeare met the Fair Youth, with whom he formed a relationship of “comfort.” Then, after at least three years of companionship with the youth, the poet became entangled with a woman...only for her to steal away the youth. Later, her relationship with Shakespeare was ended by the poet because of her treachery.

But, you may ask, why did Shakespeare risk his reputation at court and in the land by writing such intimate passages? The answer is simple: the sonnets were never intended for publication. They may have been passed around a small circle of close friends but it is not even certain that the principals in the saga saw what he had written about them. The sonnets were Shakespeare’s own private views, probably written while alone, jotted down as one would in a diary while the drama unfolded. Compiled over a five-year period between 1594 and 1599, they were eventually acquired by Thomas Thorpe who published them in 1609, seven years before Shakespeare’s death. It is not known how Thorpe managed to get his hands on them. They could have been stolen or one of Shakespeare’s literary associates may have betrayed him. Whatever happened, it must have come as a terrible shock to the poet when they were published.