At the beginning of the session, students stood in the Old Schools Quadrangle of the Bodleian Library and looked up at the proud brazen visage of William Herbert, the 3rd Earl of Pembroke―of which the very proudest feature must be the luscious, almost leafy, moustache and goatee. Students wondered, “Who is this moustachioed gentleman? And what is he doing here?” Their guide may have supplied some details: he was an English nobleman, politician and courtier; he was the Chancellor of the University; he founded a college here to bear his name.
But there is yet more to know about this man, who stares so good-naturedly at tourists, students and fellows alike as they pass through and mill in his Quadrangle. For example, he was a keen supporter of the arts: a member of the Whitehall Group―a circle of King Charles I’s associates, united by their taste for the Italian old masters―he was heavily involved in developing the interest in this type of art to England; more famously, Herbert and his brother Philip, the 1st Earl of Montgomery, had the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays dedicated to them in 1623, in gratitude for their patronage.
Many historians suppose that this connection with Shakespeare goes even further―that our Herbert was in fact the aristocratic ‘Fair Youth’ to whom the poet addresses sonnets 1-126. The sonnets are addressed to one ‘W. H.’, which could be ‘William Herbert’, or the inverse of the initials of Shakespeare’s earlier patron, Henry Wriothesley. The argument for Herbert is made on the strength of evidence that as a young man he was urged to marry Elizabeth Carey, grand-daughter of Henry Carey, the patron of Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men; in the earlier sonnets, the Fair Youth is encouraged to note the benefits of marriage and children. Further, a few years after that episode, Herbert had an affair with Mary Fitton, who has been suggested as the model for the ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets. There is not yet, and may never be, consensus on the matter, but Herbert’s later activity (conducting an affair with his cousin Lady Mary Wroth whilst married to Lady Mary Talbot) recommends him as quite romantic enough a figure for the role.
As with many of the buildings, statues and sculptures that we peep or peer at when touring, or just wandering, the streets of Oxford, there is more to William Herbert than first meets the eye. His presence in the Old Schools Quadrangle offers a reminder of―and a point of entry to―an Oxford and England of the past, when the world seemed somewhat smaller, and everything significant interconnected; just to be in Oxford is to be uncovering, constantly, still more little pieces of the picture.