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Covell Conspiracy

Revving it up

Reverend William Covell’s Wikipedia entry states that he “took part in the controversy about how far the newly-reformed Church of England should abandon the liturgy and hierarchy of the past, to which debate he contributed several broadly anti puritan works”. It adds that….”Covell's interest to modern scholars now largely depends on one polemical work published in 1595, Polimanteia”.

The interest is that Covell mentions Shakespeare, Samuel Daniell, Spenser and Watson amongst others. He also confirms his knowledge and appreciation of literature with a reference to Robert Garnier’s Cornelia, adding a marginal note ‘A work howsoever not respected yet excellently done by Th. Kid’.

Revered as de Vere

On 2nd November 2013, a new addition to Covell’s Wikipedia entry appeared: -

Waugh, Alexander (02 November 2013), "Alexander Waugh's diary: Shakespeare was a nom de plume — get over it", The Spectator:

Mr Waugh believes that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the secret and hidden true author of works by Shakespeare. He thinks Covell was aware of this claimed masquerade and deliberately exposed it. It’s understood that Mr Waugh is writing a book on the Shakespeare Authorship Question and, like others before him, attributes Covell’s overt reference with hidden meaning. Covell is ‘in the know’ about a conspiracy and Mr Waugh is revealing it.

The mechanisms of artifice
To claim de Vere wrote Shakespeare in the absence of any concrete proof, it’s necessary for Oxfordians to accumulate circumstantial and contextual ‘evidence’. What better way than to conjecture that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were in on the secret? If it might convincingly be shown that references to Shakespeare meant something else, it adds weight to their theory.

It should be noted there are absolutely no direct references to de Vere, or anyone else, secretly writing Shakespeare. If a secret was there at all, it’s lain dormant to be discovered by latter day commentators, along with an explanation as to why nobody at the time said a word.

Attributing hidden meaning to a contemporary reference, or to explain the absence of any hidden meaning or allusion, falls into three broad categories.

1. The contemporary was aware of the big secret and said so in coded term
2. The contemporary was aware but chose not to say so
3. The contemporary wasn’t at all aware of anything fishy about Shakespeare’s authorship.

Re the first two points, the question of motive must be raised. Why would anyone reveal or not reveal the supposed secret? There are two possibilities: Admiration and a desire to give credit where it was due, despite the obvious contradiction of exposing what was supposed to be secret. Or deference, out of respect for a known preference for secrecy or fear of divulging it.

In order to make the claim stick, that a contemporary reference is revelatory of de Vere’s claimed authorship of Shakespeare, the revelation must be convincing. The contemporary originator of the reference must be shown to have a credible motive and method. The originator’s artifice must be demonstrated.

Ironically, it’s the process of attributing hidden meaning to the writing of long dead literary commentators that reveals latter day artifice, calling into question the credibility of the claim.

William Covell: What he actually wrote
The title and purpose of Polimanteia, and it’s appended letter containing reference to writers and their work is explicit. I’ve highlighted keyword and phrases.

Polimanteia, or, The meanes lawfull and unlawfull, to judge of the fall of a common-wealth, against the frivolous and foolish conjectures of this age, whereunto is added, a letter from England to her three daughters, Cambridge, Oxford, innes of court, and to all the rest of her inhabitants: perswading them to a constant unitie of what religion soever they are, for the defence of our dread soveraigne, and native cuntry: most requisite for this time wherein wee now live.

The ‘added letter’ is addressed to three institutions. Covell uses the letter to praise the poets of England as superior to those of foreign nations. The marginal notes are examples supporting the theme of the text. The extract below is the source of the claimed hidden reference to de Vere as Shakespeare.




All praise
Sweet Shak-







Let divine Bartasse,eternally
praiseworthie for his weeks worke,
say the best thinges were made first:
Let other countries (sweet Cambridge)
enuie,(yet admire) my Virgil ,thy petrarch,
diuine Spenser. And Vnlesse I erre, (a thing
easie in such simplicitie) deluded by
dearlie beloued Delia, and fortunatelie
fortunate Cleopatra;Oxford thou maist
extoll thy courte-deare-verse happie
Daniell, whose sweete refined muse, in
contracted shape,were sufficient a-
mongst men, to gaine pardon of the sinne…….








Note: All Polimanteia marginalia is in italics.

The body text contains italicised names. Layout (left) is approximated.











What Alexander Waugh says Covell revealed
The following image is from a reprinted version of Covell’s 1595 original. It shows the layout which places the Shakespeare marginalia adjacent to the claimed hidden message.


According to Mr Waugh, courte-deare-verse is an anagram. Made of the sixteen letters rearranged to become ‘our de Vere a secret’. He adds that the word Oxford was deliberately placed above the two words ‘deare verse’ so that, after extracting superfluous letters, the reader can perceive the triangulation between [the 17th Earl of] Oxford and his family name, de Vere.

Based on his claimed discovery of the deliberately contrived message and affirmatory triangulation, Mr Waugh correlates the full message as being our de Vere a secret Shakespeare.

Questions and challenges to the claim
The basic Oxfordian contention is that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare and that this was ‘known’ in order for it to be revealed. In other words de Vere and Shakespeare are indivisible. The one is synonymous with the other. If this was ‘known’, why is it that other literary commentators clearly identify them as separate individuals. In 1600, John Bodenham’s Bel-vedere of the Garden of the Muses lists the writers of the age. Bodenham separates the writers into ‘Honourable’; ‘Noble personages extant’, and ‘Other honourable persons’.

Sir Philip Sidney is in the first list. Edward, Earle of Oxenford; Ferdinando, Earle of Derby; Raleigh, Dyer and Harrington are in the second. William Shakespeare is in the third, along with Marlowe and Johnson. There’s no disambiguation required. Bodenham makes it clear:-

The third list “being Modern and extant Poets, that have lived together”. Bodenham states that he has accessed and read “from many of their extant works, and some kept in private”. Bodenham’s purpose in Bel-vedere is to draw from these writers and reproduce them in relation to themes in his book. “what excellent sentences have been in any presented Tragedy, History, Pastoral or Comedy, they have been likewise gathered, and are here inserted in their proper places”.

It’s amusing to note the possible anagram of de Vere from Bel-vedere. Hyphens are important to Oxfordians. Mr Waugh says ‘courte-deare-verse’ and the hyphenated marginalia ‘Shake-speare’ are intentional and show Covell making the link. If so, Oxford has to be a person.

What or who?
Does the word Oxford refer to a person and not to the town which Covell specifically mentions in the extended title description? Katherine Duncan Jones provides the answer and explains the context of reference to writers: - “He [Covell] acknowledges that Oxford has, so far, produced even more poets than Cambridge. But The Innes of Court, England’s third cultural daughter, has produced even more”.

If, as Waugh claims, it’s the 17th Earl of Oxford whose secret authorship is being revealed in a praiseworthy context - why does Covell omit a positive indicator? For example, Noble Oxford or My Lord of Oxford. It’s pertinent to note that in his known writing, de Vere signed as Oxenford. Bodenham knew that. If Covell [as claimed] was attempting to ‘out’ the secret, he seems to be doing his best to avoid a direct identification of the word Oxford with the writer Oxenford.

Mr Waugh has argued that Covell is playing with his readers. It is accepted that Elizabethan literature is full of puns, word play and allusion. Here, we are asked to trust that an Elizabethan reader would spot the anagram/pun and the triangular word link without any indication. Considering that de Vere is alleged to have wanted anonymity for his supposed authorship, even after his death, isn’t it counterintuitive to suggest Covell’s readers would spot a secret. How could they if it was a secret?

Setting aside the illogicality or Mr Waugh’s claimed discovery, there are further matters to question.

Did Covell instruct the compositor?
The claimed deliberate triangulation of the words ‘proving’ the wordplay has been challenged. Mr Waugh says, like other writers reputed to have done so, Covell influenced the compositor to ensure the layout. He was supported in this contention by Felicity Morgan, who argued that the compressions and word spacing of the text are not related to the available space. She thinks they are purposeful.

Mr Waugh, in the Spectator blog (link above) responded to me that “authors very frequently oversaw the compositors to ensure that words were placed exactly where they should be in order to create puzzles and cryptograms. This passage from 'Polimanteia' is no exception. Have a look for instance at the 81st Sonnet from Thomas Watson's 'Hekatompathia'. Here the whole sonnet is arranged into the shape of a Pasquine Pillar, with the foot of the pillar being orchematical and using a cypher learned from Trithemius. I can think of other examples where text is set into triangles and double pillars. Naturally this process required the author's careful over-sight during the printing process. If you read R. B. McKerrow's 'An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students' (Clarendon 1927), p240-41, you will see that authors gave minute instructions on type setting to printers. For example Harrington bossing the printer Field over the typesetting of his translation of 'Orlando Furioso' by printer Richard Field in 1591. Setting texts into odd shapes and using marginal notes to enhance double meanings were fairly standard techniques in the 1590s”.

Fair enough. It’s scholarly stuff, but where’s the evidence for Covell? It’s not my intention to provide Mr Waugh with ammunition, but Covell did comment on the damage a printer could do. He writes of Cephalus and Procris, as among “workes I dispraise not”. In the margin he writes “But by the greedy Printers so made prostitute that they are contemned”. Is it wrong to suggest that Mr Waugh could have supported his contention by quoting Covell. But that he doesn’t, adds to doubts there is merit in the claimed authorial supervision, and thus to his contention?

it's not disputed that compositors were instructed, the dedication to the sonnets being a case in point.


 Here is a whole page designed to draw the readers attention and inquiry. The dedication’s wording and meaning has puzzled scholars for a  very long time and been the      subject of countless volumes on the subject.

 Comparison to Covell’s letter in Polimanteia.

'Block text layout'


There’s no indication that the Covell passage in question is creative or unusual in drawing attention to itself. It looks very much like a typical ‘block set’ passage in, let’s not forget, an appended letter! 

However, Felicity Morgan wrote “There is no ‘typeset block of text’ as such; but lines of text in which each font (letter) has been picked out by hand and put into the composing stick in this case. There are no mistakes. If you look closely at the text in question (reproduced in Waugh’s article above) you’ll notice the 2 lines have been ‘leaded out’ (prised apart slightly) adjacent to, and to possibly maximise the impact of [?] the word ‘SHAK-SPEARE’ with the hyphen”.

“There are no mistakes”: As one of my colleagues observed, “at the compositor stage, Covell would have been reading a mirror image with almost no contrast to reveal the letter forms, upside down and back to front. Even compositors waited for a proof, before proof-reading”. Of course it's possible Covell waited for proofs and approved them.

For the purpose of teasing out the fallacy of Mr Waugh’s claimed discovery, let’s assume Covell had the intention of making a deliberate revelation, had oversight and that there are no mistakes in the end result.

Artifice in action?
If Covell can be shown to have the intent, it supports the contention. If not, other readings are permissible and should be considered. A closer look at the passage is instructive.

Making words fit the space, or deliberate co-ordination of words?

We’re guided to believe great care was taken to get out the ‘secret’ in the form of an anagram, word placement and the reference to Shakespeare in close proximity. All names are italicized. Take a closer look, read it with care and Covell’s real intention becomes clear.

“Oxford thou maist extoll thy courte-deare-verse happie Daniell, whose sweete refined muse, in contracted shape….”

The absence of a full stop after the word “verse” and no upper case H in ‘happie,’ gives us a straightforward reading: That Oxford, the institution, extols the work of Samuel Daniell. The [expected?] full stop after 'verse' and subsequent upper case H would have separated Daniell from Oxford and made the claimed connection to Shakespeare more convincing. As it stands, Covell's deliberations result in the text associating Oxford with Daniell.

Allowing the claim to stand, that Oxford is de Vere, triangulations emphasise this, and that there is an anagram. An altogether different solution is obtained.

‘a secret de Vere - our happie Daniell’

Where the revelation is not that de Vere secretly wrote ‘Praiseworthy Shakespeare’’. Covell might be telling us Daniell was paid to use his “sweete refined muse” for de Vere under “contracted shape”, where these two words are cryptic and telling.

Further, Covell directed the compositor to make two triangular references. ‘Oxford de Vere’ being the first and ‘Extol thy Daniel’ being the damning second. (See above)

From the horses’ mouth.
Ros Barber is a Marlovian, she also uses Covell’s letter in Polimanteia to make points concerning the authorship debate. This is not the place to examine her specific claims. However, her intelligent and considered appreciation of the debaters is succinct and relevant to this article.

“The research of Fuselang, Dunbar and others demonstrates that despite their discipline’s reputation for impartiality, scientists are not immune from confirmation bias: the human tendency to seek out and give attention to data consistent with one’s initial theory.

Confirmation bias is probably the greatest danger to those of us with an interest in the Shakespeare authorship question. Non-Stratfordians are accused of it more than most – and often quite rightly – but as you would expect of a basic function of human neurology, it affects orthodox Shakespeareans too. Indeed, I would contend it is the orthodox scholars’ lack of engagement with significant quantities of anomalous data - that is, data inconsistent with the orthodox theory of authorship – that spawned the authorship question in the first place.

Whilst Ros Barber has a point, isn’t it the whole idea of “inconsistent data” a deflection? The data Anti-Stratfordians present frequently turns out, under scrutiny, to be inconsistent with the proposition it’s intended to support.

William Covell’s writing has been appropriated. We’re asked to believe he thought Shakespeare a fraud and said so in coded terms. In reality, Polimanteia had a purpose. It was “The meanes lawfull and unlawfull, to judge of the fall of a common-wealth, against the frivolous and foolish conjectures of this age.

You, the reader, can decide: Is Shakespeare’s commonwealth falling, or is Mr Waugh’s claimed discovery shown to be artifice indicative of confirmation bias? 

7th November 2013

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