Walter Saunders

with special thanks to Jo-Anne Friedlander for details on the graphics







In 1867 a batch of Elizabethan manuscripts was found in Northumberland House, London. They had once belonged to Francis Bacon and consisted mainly of his work, copied by his scribes in the mid-1590s. The cover page is filled with a miscellany of writing, which Frank Burgoyne, the Lambeth Librarian, transcribed in modern script and published in 1904 (See Fig. A). He thought that most of this writing was in one hand with additional words and phrases by one or two other persons. About a quarter of the matter on the page consists of incomplete words, half-syllables, repeated single letters and meaningless strokes; but most of the writing is competent and purposeful ---the lines are straight, the words are well-spaced and many letters, in particular the capitals, have ornamental flourishes typical of the Elizabethan secretarial hand. Where the writing is difficult to read, this is generally because it is faded or damaged, seldom because it is scribbled. Some words are written diagonally and some are written upside-down, indicating that a little trouble was taken (turning the page around) in order to draw the reader's attention to these words.

Today most readers only see the original of the cover page in considerably reduced facsimile, as it is presented, for example, in E.K.Chambers' William Shakespeare (facing p.196). This not only makes reading more difficult and in places impossible, but it gives the impression that the page is a chaotic mass of meaningless scribbling, as many detractors have claimed. However, when seen in enlarged rather than reduced facsimile, the order and purpose of most of the writing becomes clear. This article focuses on a four-line section, arguably the most significant part of the page. Some of this section has faded badly and some has become blurred, but none of the key words can be described as 'meaningless scribbling'.

Figure A

On the right half of the cover page (see Figure A) under the heading 'Mr ffrauncis Bacon' in larger lettering than the rest of the writing, there is a list of titles, interspersed with other words and phrases. More than half of the titles are of work found in the batch of manuscripts. In addition to the heading, the phrase 'By Mr ffrauncis Bacon' occurs twice (see Fig. A, arrows 3 and 5 and Fig. B, arrow 5).

Figure B

Then, about two-thirds down the page there is a sequence of lines, beginning much further to the left than the earlier part of the list (see Figs A. and B, arrows 7, 8 and 9):

By Mr ffrauncisffrauncis William Shakespeare
your soveraign Rychard the second Shakespeare

Bacon ffrauncis

Rychard the third

The words italicised here are written upside-down in the original and the transcription. In the original the last four letters of 'ffrauncis' are written over the last four letters of 'ffrauncis'. The lettering of 'ffrauncis' in the third line of the original has faded badly and some letters are now illegible.

The writer of these four lines was not simply adding titles to the list but stating clearly that Francis Bacon was William Shakespeare and the author of Richard II and Richard III. The manuscripts of these two plays were not among those found in the batch but that does not invalidate the writer's message. The phrase 'your soveraign' refers to Shakespeare's character, Richard II, regarded by some, including Queen Elizabeth I, as a treasonous portrait of herself.

The accuracy of Frank Burgoyne's transcription has been generally accepted, but he made no claim that it was either complete or perfect. He omitted a number of phrases, words and disconnected letters, probably because he found them illegible or meaningless. One phrase he omitted is written upside-down above 'Shak' in the first line of the extract (see arrow 6 in Figs A, B and C). Now, a century after Burgoyne's work, Simon Miles, an Australian, has puzzled out that it is 'in heleing'. The preposition 'in' is written above the last syllable of 'heleing' (see Fig. C).

Fig. C. Section of page turned upside-down


The 'i' of 'in' is awkwardly placed below the level of the 'n'. The lower part of this 'i' curves past and just to the right of the top of the 'i' of 'heleing'. The letter after the 'l' in 'heleing' looks like an 'i' but when magnified it can be seen to be the lower curve of a rudimentary Greek 'e' having the same shape as the lower curve of the Greek 'e' that comes after the 'h'.

The word 'hele' is now obsolete but in Shakespeare's day it was still in use and continued to be until the 19th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows: 'to hide, conceal; to keep secret.' So the phrase 'in heleing' means 'in hiding', 'in concealment', or 'in secret'. This gives conclusive force to the scribe's message: in effect, he is saying that Francis Bacon is the hidden or secret author concealed behind the name William Shakespeare.

The writing on the cover of the Northumberland Manuscript was done by one or more of the scribes employed by Bacon in his literary workshop. He called them his 'good pens'. No-one was in a better position than they were to know what writing he was engaged upon, since they were responsible for making fair copies of his work for private circulation, for the printers and for the players.


There are other interesting features in the writing on the NMS cover page, though none as dramatic as Simon Miles's discovery. Further down the page on the left is the following sequence (see Figs A and B, arrow 10):

day through
every crany
peepes and your
see your yWilliam Shakspeare

The italicised words are written diagonally across the line in Frank Burgoyne's transcription, as they are in the original. He omitted the 'y' that stands next to the capital 'W'. The statement, 'revealing day through every crany peepes and see', is a slightly inaccurate quotation from the first two lines of the following passage from Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, first published in 1594:

Revealing day through every cranny spies

And seems to point her out where she sits weeping;

To whom she sobbing speaks, 'O eye of eyes,

Why pry'st thou through my window? Leave thy peeping…'


Here Shakespeare describes how light, or more specifically the early morning sun, shines through every crack or chink and reveals what was hidden in darkness. In the poem what the sun reveals is the cruel shame of Lucrece's rape. Changing 'spies' to 'peepes' and 'seems' to 'see', Bacon's scribe writes, 'Revealing day through every cran(n)y peepes and see Shak(speare)' or 'and see your y(our) William Shakespeare.' In other words the morning sun reveals the true Shakespeare, whose identity was hidden in darkness.

The ability of the scribe to select so apt a line for his purpose shows how well he must have known the poem. Even his error, 'peeps' instead of 'spies', seems to have sprung to his mind through his familiarity with the poem, for the word 'peeping' actually occurs three lines later.

In the centre of the page, about eight lines from the top, there is the phrase 'Anthony Comfort and consorte' (see Fig. A, arrow 1). This refers to Francis's older brother, who was his dearest and most intimate companion, a supporting partner in his projects and a comfort in distress. He was constantly paying his younger brother's debts.

It seems the scribe was thinking of Bacon when he wrote the phrase 'laden with grief and oppression of heart' (see Fig. A, arrow 2). As Nigel Cockburn points out in The Bacon Shakespeare Question (p.177) this phrase contains echoes of Shakespeare's line, 'To counterfeit oppression of such grief ' (Richard II, 1.4.14) and the following passage from Romeo and Juliet:

Benvolio: No, coz, I rather weep.

Romeo: Good heart, at what?

Benvolio: At thy good heart's oppression.

Romeo: Why, such is love's transgression. Griefs of mine lie heavy

in my breast. (1.1.181;5)

Judging from the dating of the manuscripts in the batch, the cover page was written in 1597. In that year Francis Bacon (aged 36) was in deep financial trouble. He was oppressed by creditors, one of whom had him arrested for debt and, though he was not actually put in gaol as the creditor wished, he was humiliatingly confined in a London house. Moreover this was a period during which, in spite of his extraordinary ability and knowledge, or perhaps because of these things, he was frustrated in every attempt to gain appointment to an official post.

The word 'honorificabilitudini' (Fig. A, arrow 4) is an abbreviation of 'honorificabilitudinitatibus', the longest word in Latin, concocted in the 8th century. A sheet among Bacon's manuscripts in the British Museum shows that he amused himself with the word. In Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost, the clown Costard shows off his learning when he says to the diminutive page Moth,

'…thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flapdragon' (5.1.40).

Other Elizabethan writers, including Thomas Nashe, used this curious word, but they did so rarely. The fact that it is found in Shakespeare's and Bacon's work and on the cover page of the NMS is of some significance.

Many of Bacon's contemporaries are referred to on the cover page, including his cousin, Sir Henry Nevill, the Earls of Arundel, Essex, Sussex, Leicester and Derby (the last name omitted from the transcription) and the writer Thomas Nashe. These and other interesting features are discussed in detail by Nigel Cockburn in his chapter on the NMS in The Bacon Shakespeare Question. But, while acknowledging the great merit of his book, I believe that the author makes two serious errors in this chapter. The first is his description of the writing on the cover page as 'scribbling' and the writer as a 'scribbler'. Seeming to take a leaf from the Stratfordians' book, he uses these disparaging terms at least forty times in the course of the chapter, thus inevitably detracting from the value of the cover page as evidence.

Cockburn's other, more serious, error lies in his failure to see that the words 'By Mr ffrauncisffrauncis William Shakespeare' constitute not only a single line of writing, but also a single line of thought: the scribe is stating explicitly that Bacon and Shakespeare are one and the same person. Furthermore Cockburn says that 'the Richard plays have no author ascribed to them in the inventory.' But the manner in which the titles Rychard the second and Rychard the third are placed below the line 'By Mr ffrauncisffrauncis William Shakespeare' can only mean that these plays are ascribed to Francis Bacon.

There are other Baconian writers who have failed to grasp or convey the full significance of the cover page. For example, John Michell, in his engaging book Who Wrote Shakespeare?---- with the help of which I have brought a fair number of 'born' Stratfordians into the Bacon fold-- describes the page as 'A Near Miss' (p.131).

But it is John Michell, who has missed the target. Like Nigel Cockburn he does not see that the words 'By Mr ffrauncisffrauncis William Shakespeare' constitute a single statement in a single line. I might be wrong, but it seems that, like most people, these two eminent Baconians have only examined the original of the cover page in reduced facsimile, which can be very misleading, as I have indicated in the first part of this article. If they were to examine a good enlarged facsimile of the page, as Simon Miles did when he made his clinching discovery, they might find that most of the writing is not scribbled at all and that it provides clear and incontestable proof that Bacon wrote Shakespeare.


For centuries there has been a search for documents relating to Shakspere of Stratford. One of the dearest hopes of researchers has been to find a manuscript, a letter or even a scribbled note, that would reveal something about him as a poet and dramatist. They have found a considerable number of documents relating to him and his family, but these are all of a legal or business nature. They tell us a little about Shakspere as an actor, a theatre shareholder, a purchaser of property, a corn-dealer, a hoarder of grain, a tax defaulter, a money-lender and a ruthless pursuer of small debtors; but they reveal nothing about him as a dramatic poet. In the latter part of the 19th century when many of these unromantic and often disagreeable discoveries were made, Richard Grant White, a devoted Shakespearean critic, wrote dejectedly, "We hunger and receive these husks; we open our mouths for food and we break our teeth against these stones."

Imagine if, when examining a bundle of Elizabethan manuscripts relating to the mid-1590's, Grant White had come across a slightly damaged half-sheet, containing the following writing, some of it badly faded:

see those

lilly hands

tremble like

aspen leaves upon

a lute

Mr William Shakespeare your poet

& plaier

his King Henrie the sixt

Titus Andronicus

wanton Venus

like an eagle

ore his ayrie towers

William Shakespeare Wlm Wlm

William Sh Sh

Sh Shak Shakespeare

our avon swan

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

What would the critic's reaction have been to such a document? What would the reaction of the whole literary establishment have been? They would certainly not have dismissed it as 'mere scribbling'. One might imagine Richard Grant White writing something like this:

"A truly wonderful discovery! Here at last, instead of another dry husk or another stone, is a nugget of pure gold. Here is a document, that does not point to Shakespeare as a malt-dealer, a hoarder of grain or a money-lender, but as a poet! Moreover the writer quotes Shakespeare's own lines from Titus Andronicus (2.4.44) and King John (5.2.149). Then, too, he describes the bard as 'our avon swan', which seems to anticipate the very phrase Ben Jonson would make his own many years later in his famous memorial ode. Judging from the early work of Shakespeare referred to in the document and its discovery in a bundle of papers dated the mid-1590s, it was probably written in 1594 or 1595, not later. The writer was clearly a man of literary taste. Here, it seems, he was jotting down a few random but meaningful thoughts and dwelling admiringly, perhaps even lovingly, on the names 'William' and 'Shakespeare'."

But, alas, no such document has ever been found! Like Richard Grant White, researchers into the life of Shakspere of Stratford have continued and will continue to blunt their teeth on dry husks and stones.

If, instead of simply seeking evidence that would confirm their preconceptions, those indomitable researchers had been open-mindedly seeking the truth, they might have come to realise that it had already been found in 1867, plainly stated on the cover page of the Northumberland Manuscript. But that was not the kind of truth Grant White and the rest of the literary establishment were looking for. So they have either tried to dismiss it as 'mere scribbling' and 'meaningless doodling', or, like the great authority, Samuel Schoenbaum, and many others, they have ignored it and treated it as though it does not exist. Schoenbaum, in his long chapter dealing with the Baconian theory in Shakespeare's Lives, made no mention of the NMS. More inexcusably, in his grand volume William Shakespeare: A documentary life, which purports to present facsimiles of every known contemporary handwritten document relating to Shakespeare, including the driest of husks and the stoniest of stones, he omitted the NMS cover page completely-- a gross piece of academic dishonesty.

But Schoenbaum's dishonesty has its useful side. One only hides what one does not want others to see. Schoenbaum's attempt to hide the cover page of the NMS (hoping, no doubt, that, with a little help from his academic friends, it could simply be made to disappear) was tantamount to an admission that neither he nor anyone else could refute it as evidence that Bacon wrote Shakespeare.

--Walter Saunders

In the Shakespeare 2000 series, by presenting the plays in modern English side by side with the original, Walter Saunders and Vivien Vibert have made the work far more accessible to the general reader and created an excellent resource for teachers and students. The modernised versions keep as far as possible to the spirit and the metre of the originals. To date there are seven titles in the series, Othello being the latest. They are all available, complete with introduction, notes, glossary etc. and a short section on Bacon's authorship. For more information email:





























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