Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (Wriothesley is pronounced "Risly") (October 6, 1573 – November 10, 1624), one of William Shakespeare's patrons, was the second son of Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton, and his wife Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton, daughter of the 1st Viscount Montagu.
When his father died, he moved to Midhurst, England, and succeeded to the title in 1581, when he became a royal ward, under the immediate care of Lord Burghley. He entered St John's College, Cambridge, in 1585, graduating M.A. in 1589: and his name was entered at Gray's Inn before he left the university. At the age of seventeen he was presented at court, where he was soon counted among the friends of the earl of Essex, and was distinguished by extraordinary marks of the queen's favor. He became a munificent patron of poets: Nashe dedicated his romance of Jack Willon to him, and Gervase Markham his poem on Sir Richard Grenville's last fight. His name is also associated with Barnabe Barnes's Parthenophil and Parthenope, and with the Worlde of Wordes of John Florio, who was for some years in his personal service as teacher of Italian.
Nathan Drake in his Shakespeare and his Times (1819; vol. ii. pp. 62 seq.) first suggested that Lord Southampton was the person to whom the sonnets of Shakespeare were addressed. He set aside Thomas Thorpe's dedication to the "onlie begetter of these ensuing sonnets, Mr W.H.," by adopting the very unusual significance given by George Chalmers to the word begetter, which he takes as equivalent to procurer. Mr W. H. was thus to be considered only as the bookseller who obtained the manuscript. Other adherents of the Southampton theory suggest that the initials H. W. (Henry Wriothesley) were simply reversed for the sake of concealment by the publisher. It is possible in any case that too much stress has been laid on Thomas Thorpe's mystification.
The chief arguments in favor of the Southampton theory are the agreement of the sonnets with the tone of the dedication of Lucrece, the friendly relations known to have existed between Southampton and the poet, and the correspondence, at best slight, between the energetic character of the earl and that of the young man of the sonnets. Mr Arthur Acheson (Shakespeare and the Rival Poet, 1903) brings much evidence in favor of the theory, first propounded by William Minto, that George Chapman, whose style is parodied by Shakespeare in the 21st sonnet and in Love's Labour's Lost, was the rival poet of the 78th and following sonnets. Mr Acheson goes on to suppose that Chapman's erotic poems were written with a view to gaining Southampton's patronage, and that that nobleman had refused the dedication as the result of Shakespeare's expostulations. The obscurity surrounding the subject is hardly lightened by the dialogue between H. W. and W. S. in Willobie his Avisa, a poem printed in 1594 as the work of Henry Willobie. If the sonnets were indeed addressed to Southampton, the earlier ones urging marriage upon him must have been written before the beginning (1595) of his intrigue with Elizabeth Vernon, cousin of the Earl of Essex, which ended in 1598 with a hasty marriage that brought down Queen Elizabeth's anger on both the contracting parties, who spent some time in the Fleet prison in consequence. The Southampton theory of the sonnets cannot be regarded as proved, and must in any case be considered in relation to other interpretations.
In 1599, during the Nine Years War (1595-1603), he went to Ireland with Essex, who made him general of his horse, but the queen insisted that the appointment be cancelled. Southampton remained on in personal attendance upon the earl, rather than as an officer. During his time in the Irish wars, it was reported to Cecil that he saw most of his active service in bed with a captain Piers Edmunds - he would "cole and hug" his captain in his arms, and "play wantonly" with him. However, Southampton was active during the campaign, and prevented a defeat at the hands of the Irish rebels, when his cavalry drove off an attack at Arklow in County Wicklow. He was deeply involved in Essex's conspiracy against the queen, and in February 1601 was sentenced to death. Cecil obtained the commutation of the penalty to imprisonment for life.
On the accession of James I Southampton resumed his place at court and received numerous honors from the new king. On the eve of the abortive rebellion of Essex he had induced the players at the Globe Theatre to revive Richard II, and on his release from prison in 1603 he resumed his connection with the stage. In 1603 he entertained Queen Anne with a performance of Love's Labour's Lost by Burbage and his company, to which Shakespeare belonged, at Southampton House.
He seems to have been a born fighter, and engaged in more than one serious quarrel at court, being imprisoned for a short time in 1603 following a heated argument with Lord Grey of Wilton in front of Queen Anne. Grey, an implacable opponent of the Essex faction, was later implicated in the Main Plot and Bye Plot. Southampton was in more serious disgrace in 1621 for his determined opposition to Buckingham. He was a volunteer on the Protestant side in Germany in 1614, and in 1617 he proposed to fit out an expedition against the Barbary pirates.
Southampton was a leader among the Jacobean aristocrats who turned to modern investment practices — "in industry, in modernizing their estates and in overseas trade and colonization. He financed the first tinplate mill in the country, and founded an ironworks at Titchfield. He developed his properties in London, in Bloomsbury and Holborn; he revamped his country estates, participated in the efforts of the East India Company and the New England Company, and backed Henry Hudson's search for the Northwest Passage.
A significant artistic patron in the Jacobean as well as the Elizabethan era, Southampton promoted the work of George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Heywood, and the composer Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger. Heywood's popular, expansionist dramas were compatible with Southampton's maritime and colonial interests.
His name is thought by many to be the origin of the naming of the harbor of Hampton Roads, and the Hampton River. Although named at later dates, similar attribution may involve the town (and later city) of Hampton, Virginia, as well as Southampton County, Virginia and Northampton County. However, the name Southampton was not uncommon in England, including an important port city and an entire region along the southern coast, which was originally part of Hampshire. There are also variations applied in other areas of the English colonies which were not part of the Virginia Company of London's efforts, making the origin of the word and derivations of it as applied in Virginia even more debatable.
Henry and Elizabeth married while "...she was already highly pregnant". Recent speculation advances the possibility that their eldest child was actually by William Shakespeare.
Henry and Elizabeth had several children including:
A rare portrait, believed to be of Southampton has been discovered using X-ray technology. Art historians from Bristol University have found what they believe is a picture of Henry Wriothesley which was painted over in the 16th Century. To the naked eye, it is a portrait of his wife Elizabeth Vernon, dressed in black and wearing ruby ear-rings. The hidden picture was uncovered when the work was X-rayed in preparation for an exhibition in Somerset.
P Alvor in Das neue Shakespeare Evangelium (Munich, 1906), brings forward a theory that Southampton and Rutland were the authors of the Shakespeare tragedies and comedies respectively, and borrowed William Shakespeare's name to secure themselves from Elizabeth's suspicion.