Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573–1624), was a literary patron and courtier, well known for his flamboyant looks and showy, expensive clothes. He appears in more portraits surviving from his day than anyone except Queen Elizabeth I. In this painting, Southampton wears a silk doublet, coloured garters and embroidered gloves, with his famous long auburn hair swept over one shoulder. In the background are parts of an elaborate suit of armour.
Henry was the son of Mary Browne and the 2nd Earl of Southampton. But on his father’s death he was placed in the care of the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, Burghley. In 1590, Burghley tried to arrange for the 17-year-old Henry to marry Lady Elizabeth Vere, his 12-year-old granddaughter. Henry refused to do so, risking a huge fine for disobeying his guardian.
Southampton became a notorious bachelor at court, and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. But in 1598 he married Elizabeth Vernon, one of the Queen’s maids of honour, after she became pregnant. Angry at the secret marriage, the Queen imprisoned Southampton for a short while. In 1601 he joined Essex’s rebellion against Elizabeth I, but escaped execution and was committed to the Tower. It was only when James I became king in 1603 that Southampton was released and resumed his status as a favourite at court.
Southampton was a keen theatre-goer and generous patron of writers including William Shakespeare, John Florio and Thomas Nash. Two of Shakespeare’s longer poems, 'Venus and Adonis' (1593) and 'The Rape of Lucrece' (1594) were dedicated to him. This has led some critics to suggest that he could be the ‘Fair Youth’ addressed in Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1–126. Southampton was initially reluctant to wed, and the first sonnets urge the young man to marry. Some also argue that Henry Wriothesley could be the ‘Mr. W. H.’ addressed in the preface to the Sonnets (1609).
Other critics suggest different contenders for both these roles, or question whether it’s possible – or valuable – to find a real ‘fair youth’ beyond the poems.