Perhaps my short story, 6.WTFR- Who the Governor Left Behind should have been titled, “What the Governor Took with Him”
When David Collins died in 1810 he was buried in State in a Hobart park. His coffin was markedly over-sized. Did he take something with him? Rumour had it that it was his papers. Papers. Neither coin nor cash. Papers. He died in debt.
In 1925, one hundred and fifteen years later, his coffin was exhumed overwatched by a lawyer. His family’s descendants – in England or perhaps Australia, we are not told who, engaged the lawyer specifically to retrieve the papers he took to his grave.
Why? What was he hiding?
After pottering about with mouldy letters and history books and pondering over historical volumes, I was faced with three alternatives:
- An extramarital affair – or two
- The guarded family secret of a well-heeled aristocrat unearthed but unexploited by his grandfather
- A 17th Century smoking gun
- An Extramarital Affair- or two
We know that he had extramarital affairs, but he died in debt. He was neither a wealthy man nor to the manor born. Being the founding Governor of Hobart, perhaps the most remote colony in the British Empire, it’s easy to assume he didn’t have many creature comforts. He shouldn’t have had anything of great material value to leave behind. Could the verification of his paternity of two Australian families – one in New South Wales and the other in Hobart – be enough reason to exhume his bodily remains? Did his descendants want verification that their ancestor was a bigamist on paper as well as in life? It doesn’t seem like impetus enough for an exhumation. Would they want the stigma?
- An Aristocratic Family Secret well hid
What if the question of paternity was attached to the line of old English nobility? The titles of Earl of Oxford, Lord Bulbeck and Great Lord Chamberlain of England were being contested by three parties after the death of the 18th Earl of Oxford, Henry de Vere. Henry’s half-sister, the Countess of Derby and Lord of Mann, Elizabeth Stanley; his first cousin, Robert Willoughby, Lord Eresby; and Robert de Vere, his more distant cousin, were all claimants.
The Countess’ paternity was questioned by her father during her lifetime before he eventually accepted her as his daughter: was she really?
David Collins grandfather was the 18th century historian and genealogist, Arthur Collins who collected the papers surrounding the challenge and compiled them for his book, Historical Collections of the Noble Families of Cavendish, Holles, Vere, Harley and Ogle (1752). Could these papers wrest a position in the peerage away from one family in favour of another? What about a fortune in land, historical monuments, antiques and jewels? (And estate upkeep and tax, some would argue.)
By 1925 any argument over fortune or peerage would be moot. By then the Earldom of Oxford had passed onto its third creation. In 1925, it was the Earldom of Oxford and Asquith with no obvious links back to the family of the first creation, Vere.
Could Arthur Collins have collected a more dangerous document? But what would account as being dangerous or controversial two centuries after the historian’s death and 400 years after the earliest document in his collection was written? What would still be causing a stir in 1925?
- A 17th Century Smoking Gun
1925 – between the wars –the roaring 20s- the heady days of wowsers and flappers- before the Great Depression. And 5 years after the release of J.T. Looney’s Shakespeare Identified. The book that introduced the world to the man who would become the greatest rival to William Shakspere of Stratford for the authorship of England’s greatest cultural monument, the plays and poetry of William Shakespeare, Edward de Vere. Or more correctly, Edward Oxenford, 17th Earl of Oxford (EO henceforth).
Looney’s book must have created quite a stir in Shakespearean circles. Henry Clay Folger, the founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library went out and purchased E.O.’s Geneva Bible. Sigmund Freud got behind the argument, incorporating EO in his professional work as an example. Other vocal adherents included celebrated writers of Tudor and Elizabethan History including Alan Gordon Smith, and Sir Geoffery Callender, and the novelist, John Galsworthy. (1)
The authorship question wasn’t new. Other contenders had popped up throughout the 19th Century including: Francis Bacon, EO’s colleague; The Earl of Derby, EO’s daughter’s brother-in-law; Christopher Marlowe; and even a case or two for a group of authors (Delia Bacon’s The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857) proposed a group of authors including Bacon and EO and in 1892, Our English Homer proposed another list including Bacon). (2)
The authorship question continues to be controversial. Can you imagine what a paradigm shift would do to the integrity of academics who are staunchly opposed to the idea? In 1925, the same paradigm shift would have similar repercussions – confusion, retraining, embarrassment, concerns over job security and validity.
Is getting history right worth the fuss?
Does the truth matter?
The truth would usher in a clearer picture on how, when and why the works were created. The author’s intent could be clarified. A greater understanding of the society that fostered the works would be gained.
Imagine if there was consensus on those sonnets!
Evidence – Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Circumstantial
J T Looney’s work was compiled with a forensic approach. He asked what sort of person was capable of having all the formative influences, contemporary experience, access to documents and books (there were no public libraries in England at the time) and social sensibility. He realised he was searching for an aristocrat, educated in latin, greek, French; well-read in the classic; astute in law; well versed in palace etiquette; a lover of sport, music, theatre, poetry – a man who lay unappreciated for his exceptional talents. (3).
He was convinced it was Edward de Vere. His argument has swayed thousands. The problem with it is that it’s based on circumstantial evidence – a mountain of it. There are no primary or secondary documents connecting him to the works. He has left behind poetry – juvenilia and a healthy log of contemporary tertiary evidence that he was a very fine playwright and poet.
One of the chief concerns raising questions over William of Stratford’s being the author is the lacuna of documents written in his own hand discussing anything literary – anything at all.
A similar claim can be made of the Earl. History has provided us with a cache of letters but other than an oblique reference to something nebulous he was teaming up with Francis Bacon on, he makes no mentions of his plays nor his poetry.
Another concern over William of Stratford’s being the author is his will. He makes no provisions for his supposed literary output, nor for any book he may have had in his possession. Did he have a garage sale – erhem, stable sale, before he died or did he not own any? Books were considerably more valuable in the days before mass publication than they are today.
Again, when considering EO’s claim – or anyone else’s -the will becomes an issue. Sonnet 81 tells us that he had a very high opinion of his own literary output. He had to have made provisions for his papers. If E.O. had a will and he was indeed the man behind the pseudonym Shakespeare, then that document alone could clear up the issue.
So where is the will?
Collins’ Historical Collections of the Noble Families of Cavendishe, Holles, Vere, Harley and Ogle (1752) itemises the will of the 16th Earl, explains the way the Vere line was able to hold onto the Earldom for the centuries it did, and explains where the entail was gone around to allow a woman’s line to succeed. It doesn’t detail any other earl’s will. Was this because Collins didn’t have any other will to write about or because there was nothing in those wills’ that could impact the succession?
Arthur Collins (1684-1769) stated that he held the papers regarding the succession issues in the Vere family after EO’s son’s death. Reading this, logic led me to enquire whether the Collins Family Papers now held by the Mitchell Library contained the mythical will. Looking through the Collection I found two things:
- Papers regarding the colony of New South Wales, letters home and bits and pieces from historical collections gathered by Arthur Collins
- Mould infested papers on microfiche
I found no legible references to any Vere outside of the Historical Collections of the Noble Families of Cavendishe, Holles, Vere, Harley and Ogle.
The mouldy papers were a concern. Snatches of words could be made out but no real meaning. I doubted that a will could be among them from the look of what was legible.
What is concerning is that mould was allowed to fester in the Collection before it was purchased for the library. That up unto the 19th Century the family knew of its importance is obvious in a list of its more notable contents that was drawn up in 1872. If the family were able to recognize a notable name, it would have made that list.
EO is known today as Edward de Vere but he signed his name Edward Oxenford. He was following in his father’s footsteps in a way. John de Vere was born a John Vere but styled himself John de Vere according to Arthur Collins. His son took it a step further by tying his name to his title.
If any documents signed Edward Oxenford were to have been part of the Collection their importance would have been missed.
If the will is lying forgotten (and hopefully not mouldering) in someone’s basement, unless the name of Edward Oxenford is well known, it won’t surface.
Was the will that could decide the Shakespeare Authorship Question with finality buried with the Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania in 1810? Why would it be? Was there something so controversial – so dangerous in the life of EO that a bigamist in 1810 would have it buried with him? Could it have been buried with him by mistake in a bundle of family papers?
If you believed the key to uncovering the secret of Shakespeare lay buried with your ancestor, would you hire a lawyer, jump on a steamship to the end of the Earth and have his coffin exhumed from a State Park?
In 1925 – was it worth it? It seemed like the whole world had heard about the authorship question and Edward de Vere and were curious.
What was Buried with the Governor?
In 1979, gravedigger, Jim Reynolds, was interviewed for the ABC by Jim Adnum. There were no papers in the coffin. There was no room for them. The coffin contained another coffin tightly packed within it. The inner coffin contained the embalmed remains of the Governor, just as was reported in 1810 in the Derwent Star.
The Governor did have papers and books that were destroyed immediately after his death. They were believed to have been the documents surrounding the settlement of Hobart. What was he up to? The newly arrived Governor Macquarie wasn’t too happy with him.
Who did the Governor Leave Behind?
A family in Sydney. Another family in Hobart and a wife in England. Could our rakish Governor also have left behind the novelist, Louisa Sidney Stanhope?
- Who Was Shakespeare?, Munn. Orson D. Ed., Scientific American. NY: Munn & Co Inc, 1940. 162:1. (264)
- Shakespeare-Oxford Society website, History of Doubts surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, 11/12/2006
- for a complete list scroll down on this page – https://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/shakespeare-identified-100/
Collins Arthur, Historical Collections of the Noble Families of Cavendishe, Holles, Vere, Harley and Ogle (1752) – available online via ECCO – Eighteenth Century Collections Online
Shakespeare-Oxford Society website, History of Doubts surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, 11/12/2006
Who Was Shakespeare?, Munn. Orson D. Ed., Scientific American. NY: Munn & Co Inc, 1940. 162:1.
Australian Broadcasting Commission, Interview by Mr Jim Adnum with Mr John Reynolds, 1979.
Derwent Star, Tuesday April 3, 1810.
Herald, Byways of History: The Man Who Failed – An Australian Birthday Story, (26/01/1956)
The Mercury, Old Letters Shed New Light on Life of Hobart’s Founder, Phillip Kingsley,(18/06/1982)
The Mercury, David Collins: Fickle, Lonely, Deep in Debt, (01/04/1986)
Sydney Morning Herald, Relics Throw Light on Early Settlement, (23/03/1963)
Sydney Morning Herald, David Collins: Founder of Hobart, (28/03/1931)
Collins Family Papers, Mitchell Library, CY1450; CY2120; CY2119