The Earl of Oxford’s annotations in Tacitus and Blondus?

Posted By on February 19, 2012


The Earl of Oxford’s “crown signature” from his October 7, 1601 letter to Robert Cecil

An article in the November 2011 de Vere Society newsletter by  Elizabeth Imlay hypothesizes that marginal annotations and drawings contained in copies of Tacitus’ History of Rome and Blondus History of Europe  from Sir Thomas Smith’s library, now in the Queen’s College Library in Cambridge, are by the young Edward de Vere.

Drawings and marginal annotations from volume in Sir Thomas Smith’s library, attributed by Elizabeth Imlay to the Earl of Oxford.

Imlay deserves congratulations for following up on a potentially important piece of evidence. The premises of her inquiry are valid ones. As has long been known, and as Stephanie Hughes has documented in her remarkable Concordia University Bachelor’s Thesis, summarized in a 2000 Oxfordian article, Sir Thomas Smith is a very important figure in Oxford’s early education.

By all appearances Smith tutored young Edward from around the age of four until the death of his father in 1561, when primary responsibility for his education fell to William Cecil.  Moreover, the two volumes in question are likely to have interested the young Edward, whose fascination with history is well documented in the Elizabethan paper trail.

It is entirely plausible that Smith’s surviving library and papers might contain evidence pertaining to the Shakespearean question, and in a rational world (alas!) no effort would be spared in undertaking such an inquiry. Unfortunately, as we shall see, in this case Imlay’s interpretation of the evidence leads a great deal to be desired – not only because the annotations, even if they had been by Oxford, cast no evident new light on the theory of his authorship of the Shakespearean canon, but more importantly because, as we shall see, they are not by him.

Karen Begg, the Queens College Curator quoted dismissively by Imlay, is right: the contested sample annotations are by Sir Thomas Smith. On the other hand, despite these limitations, and despite the fact that she endorses a fallacious conclusion, Imlay’s article is significant because it follows up an important angle of inquiry in the authorship question, namely — what can we learn from careful analysis of Oxford’s annotations in surviving books such as his Geneva Bible?

It stands to reason that more such books must exist. Whoever wrote the plays was a voracious reader. Over 300 books survive from Ben Jonson’s library, many of them containing annotations which have proven of some interest to Jonson scholars, even in the absence of a Jonson authorship question. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has asked, “where are Shakespeare’s books?”  In the interest of encouraging others to pursue such inquiry from a more informed perspective this blog entry invites the reader to examine why these particular annotations are not by Oxford.

Before proceeding, I should mention two obvious caveats: First, I am not a professionally trained forensic paleographer; moreover, the more controversial a conclusion the more it must ultimately rest with disinterested independent professionals. That, of course, is why in completing my PhD dissertation on the de Vere Bible I retained the services of Ms. Emily Will, a board certified forensic analyst, to verify my own hypothesis that the annotations were in Oxford’s hand.

But there is another principle at stake in such inquiry. It’s my personal conviction that every Principle Investigator should know as much as humanly possible about the various areas of specialized expertise which his or her inquiry involves.  A good general contractor may not know as much about electrical systems as an electrician, but the more he knows the more likely he is to hire the right electrician and know how well  he’s doing his job. When I first began examining early modern documents in the early 1990s, Marc Shell, now Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, advised me to become my own handwriting expert — and I did.

Having also in the interim examined a number of anonymous early modern and 19th century documents  to determine their writership, I have a pretty solid practical understanding of how professional forensic paleographers go about making conclusions.  I am also co-author, with forensic documents analysts at the University of Buffalo’s CEDAR forensics lab, of two computerized studies of the 19th century “Hydrachos” document discussed elsewhere on this website.

While the following analysis is no substitute for submitting Imlay’s findings to an independent professional, I therefore think it may well be instructive for the reader.

My first response to this evidence, I will readily admit, was a positive one. I was predisposed to believe Imlay’s hypothesis, and could see a number of features of this italic hand that strongly reminded me of Oxford’s own. The capital A, for example, in “Antonius” seemed a distinct match Oxford’s capital A as I knew it, or at least thought I knew it, from my paleographical study of the de Vere bible annotations and de Vere’s surviving holograph.[i]

I also liked the shapes of the small letter “a” – the way they tended to form angled lozenges, a bit pointy at both top and bottom and slanted at about twenty-thirty degrees.  Moreover, I also thought I could see on first blush clear indications that the annotations were not in Smith’s hand.

But I also know from long experience how easily in handwriting analysis the results can be predetermined by an overly subjective bias on the part of the analyst. With this in mind, any good forensic handwriting analysis must consist of two parts.

First you must try in your own mind to prove that the questioned sample matches another, known sample. Without such a hypothesis, you have no reason to proceed and are better off spending your time in-line skating or whatever you enjoy doing to relax.

But if you think the documents might match, this is only your first step. The second step cannot be ignored. Once you think you’ve got a case for the identity of the documents, you must turn your analysis around and work even harder to demolish your own hypothesis. So you’ve found evidence for identity – patterns in the samples that could be attributed to common authorship….what about differences? Pretend your job is to demolish your own hypothesis. Be mean. Don’t cut yourself any slack.  If you don’t do this for yourself, believe, me, someone else will do it for you, and you may not like it…..

In the end, in the absence of assistance from computerized software such as that used by CEDAR, a valid conclusion depends on the relative weight of the two cases, for and against, that you are able to construct in your own mind and in your written analysis.

Imlay’s analysis of the contrast between Smith’s and Oxford’s hands, so far as it goes, seems  plausible. She writes that Smith frequently mixes italic and secretary hands and that his italic tends to display “many secretarial flourishes”; she believes that “you never find any of this happening in the marginal annotations, nor do you find it in Edward de Vere’s correspondence” (16).

Imlay contrasts de Vere’s hand as “rather tight” and “controlled” – i.e., lacking the “secretarial flourishes” visible in Smith’s italic. From this Imlay concludes that “while there are similarities between the handwriting of Edward de Vere and Sir Thomas Smith, there are also sufficient differences to say that it is not Smith’s writing in the margins [of the contested documents]” (17).

While these statements may not be false, they also aren’t very “operationalizable” — that is, they are impressionistic, subjective evaluations that could be applied in so many different ways that they aren’t particularly useful for a real forensic analysis. Moreover,  Imlay is apparently unaware of some critical elements of historical context that render her analysis far less convincing than it otherwise might sound.

Actually it is not at all uncommon for early modern English writers to switch back and forth between Secretary and Italic, esepecially when they are writing in a predominantly Secretary mode but want to use italics for some emphatic purpose. This is exactly the same as modern use of italics, and the convention is readily apparent for Latin phrases or other expressions that the early modern writer wants to set apart from the main text.

Of course, this pattern will be evident only in those writers trained in both Secretary and Italic hands. How common this was, we don’t really know, but it is readily documented in such basic handbooks of early modern paleography as Gregg’s English Literary Autographs or Dawson and Kennedy-Skipton’s Elizabethan Handwriting 1500-1650 (see, e.g., samples 25, 32 or 39). In play manuscripts, it was typical for speech prefixes and stage directions to appear in italic, while speeches themselves were written in Secretary hand.

The Italic hand did not appear in England until sometime during the reign of Henry VIII, when sons of aristocrats and royals (such as Edward VI) were first trained to use it. Its use grew throughout the Elizabethan reign. It appears that anyone who wrote in Italic was probably also trained in Secretary, but well into the Elizabethan age many writers were apparently versatile only in the more traditional script.

It is important to emphasize that this same “back and forth” between the two copybook forms is very rarely seen in documents of a predominantly italic character.  For this reason, while Imlay’s description is not inaccurate, her analysis is seriously flawed. A pattern that she attributes idiosyncratically to Smith’s hand is actually a generic characteristic seen in samples of secretary hand from many writers of the period.

The implications of this line of reasoning are pretty clear. The entire basis for Imlay’s attempt to distinguish Smith and Oxford’s hand is faulty. If we had samples of Oxford’s secretary hand of any length (it stands to reason that he had one, but there is no verified sample of it and therefore no basis for comparison with any other hypothetical documents), it is almost certain that it would, like Smith’s, contain some intermixed italic forms.

This larger point would be irrelevant if the distinction that Imlay wants to draw between Smith’s “secretarial flourishes” and Oxford’s “tight” or “controlled” italic were valid, but it unfortunately it is not.

Above and beyond the vagueness of the terms, Imlay ignores two essential elements of any good handwriting analysis: she neglects the distinction between natural and systematic variation that is essential to any valid forensic handwriting inquiry. Being unaware of the distinction, she also doesn’t conduct a detailed or systematic examination of the letter forms found in the two documents.

Forensic paleographers depend on this distinction between natural variation  – the variation that exists within a population of writing written by the same hand – and systematic variation – the kind denoting that the two samples are drawn from two different writers. Indeed, since in paleography variation is a fact of any sample consisting of more than one element of comparison, the art of successful forensic inquiry consists in the ability to distinguish one form of variation from the other.

Sample size is also important. Because of natural variation, it is easy to be misled – in either direction – by singular comparisons, or even comparison based on only a few exemplars of a letter.  Not knowing that a large amount of Smith’s handwriting is available online at The University of Cambridge’s Scriptorium in the form of his circa 1540s-1570s “Inventory,” I began this analysis using only the samples of Smith’s hand reproduced in Imlay’s article.

Neither set of images is ideal for detailed study that would allow definitive conclusions, but together they constitute an impressive sample that at the least allows the reader to see why Imlay’s conclusions are wrong.

Let’s take a look in practice at how these theoretical distinctions might help us to understand why Imlay’s identification of the annotator as Oxford really is implausible at best.

Questioned document Smith Oxford
Table One.

Capital letters are especially useful for comparison as they are often more complex and can provide more highly-individuated design patterns than their corresponding lower case siblings. The above examples illustrate the single capital “G” from Imlay’s questioned document sample, four examples from Smith’s Inventory,  and one (the only one available to me) from Oxford’s 1603 King James Letter.

In considering this comparison it should be stressed that one exemplar is never sufficient to draw a conclusion. In this case, however, we only have one exemplar from the questioned sample document and one from Oxford’s hand, so we will work with what we have.

Despite this limitation, comparison with the three exemplars from Smith is instructive.

Smith forms capital G in two ways. One has no flourish at the top and makes a long descender comparable to the one seen in Oxford’s exemplar. The other is very close to the exemplar from the contested document. It has a very round shape, a conspicuous flourish at the top, and no descender.

If for the sake of a heuristic moment we classify the Smith and contested exemplars as group we see that all of them share one characteristic not seen in the exemplar from Oxford’s hand: they are all considerably rounder and less elongated,  both in the body and in the descender.

Given our caveat about limited sample size, it would be rash to draw any conclusions from this comparison, but it does allow the preliminary generalization that we already see little evidence supporting Imlay’s theory that the annotations are by Oxford, and a good bit suggesting that her inference that the annotations can’t be by Smith is also doubtful.

Considering some other letters may help to either confirm or call into question this tentative hypothesis.

Imlay complains that comparison of capital letters is difficult because Oxford writes such long sentences that “there are few capitals in most of the letters” (17).

Again, although this is somewhat true, the handwriting analyst must make due with what is available (always bearing in mind that the confidence of a given conclusion is partly a function of the sample size).

Table Two shows what happens when we piggyback on our analysis of capital G some comparisons of capital C from both Smith and Oxford.

Questioned document Smith Oxford
Table Two.

This comparison helps to compensate for the fact that the capital letter G is in fact rare in Oxford’s known handwriting, and reveals an underlying unity of form between capital G and capital C that the analyst can exploit for drawing comparisons.

This time the limiting factor is the contested document sample, which in the reproductions available to me contains no comparable capital C. But we can readily see that this letter is formed in the samples from Smith and Oxford on the same pattern as used for the G. Moreover, these two sets of exemplars show the same contrasting features as documented above for G. Oxford’s capital Cs tend to be greatly elongated, while Smith’s are – usually – almost round and sport the same serif as seen in his open G.

The sensitivity of such conclusions to sample size is illustrated by the last exemplar from Smith, which shows an elongated C quite similar to Oxford’s own.

But in this case the exception verifies the rule, for  Smith’s capital C appears most commonly in the rounder form with the serif – closely matching the G of the contested sample – Oxford never to my knowledge forms either a capital G or C in this manner.

With this in mind, when we compare these back to the contested document G, this already begins to look like clear evidence for difference that cannot be attributed to the range of variation within the hand of a single writer.

There are several capital letter “M”s in the questioned document (Table Three), so this may provide a more valid comparison with Oxford’s hand. The three M’s that I was able to excerpt from the questioned document are reproduced below alongside three capital M’s from Oxford’s hand that illustrate a typical range of natural variation in his hand.

Questioned Document Smith Oxford

 Table Three.

Smith’s Scriptorium Inventory eventually supplied three examples of his capital M.  It can be seen that these letters share certain characteristics in common with the exemplars of G and C from their corresponding samples: the contested sample M’s are very straight, with only slight ornamental serifs at the bottom of both descenders.

Oxford’s M, like his G above, has a more flowing appearance created by balanced assymetry. The ascender on the left shoulder is more rounded,  and because the descender is more straight, the resulting shoulder  is more asymmetrical than the one on the right,  which forms a more-or-less symmetrical upturned v not unlike those seen also in the contested and Smith exemplars.

By this point we may be starting to form a reasonable conclusion that the questioned document isn’t likely to be in Oxford’s hand and that, on the contrary, it looks suspiciously similar to Smith’s.

In that case, we will not be surprised to learn that capital letter “R”  (Table Four) furnishes yet another instance of clear discrepancy between the contested sample and Oxford as well as supplying clear evidence for our alternative hypothesis that the annotations are by Smith.

Questioned document



 Table Four.

This is definitely a case where Imlay’s concern over the shortage of exemplars of capital letters in Oxford’s accepted holograph complicates a definitive conclusion. But although a larger sample, especially of Oxford’s hand, would be preferable, we cannot help but notice that such as evidence as we do have corresponds to the pattern we have already seen in the previous examples.The evidence of the contested exemplar matches Smith, not Oxford.

The contested sample shares two prominent characteristics with Smith’s exemplars – 1) In all five exemplars the final descender of the R descends in a very long gentle curve well under some portion of the subsequent word; 2) In one exemplar from each sample, a long riser extends the back of the R well above the bowl.

The Oxford exemplar  shows a much more restrained final descender, which terminates well before the next letter of the word. The riser goes up above the bowl but instead of ending in a straight line makes a flourishing loop as it returns to start the next phase of the letter.

Not only  is there what appears to be a systematic variation between Oxford’s hand and the questioned document sample, but the latter appears to match Smith’s italic hand in identifiably idiosyncratic ways.

In particular, the large size of the final descender, the way it loops under several or all of the letters in the word it originates is a striking characteristic of Smith’s hand that is matched perfectly in the contested document. The Oxford sample has a much more modest flourish to it, giving the letter a clean, practical appearance — unlike the signature, for example, of an Osric.

Capital E (Table Five) supplies an excellent further illustration of the importance of sample size, although this time the limiting factor is the contested sample.

Contested Document Smith Oxford

Table Five.

Drawing from the exemplars reproduced in Imlay’s article, which include the top E from the Oxford sample, we might be tempted to think that the Oxford and contested samples could be the same writer. But when we add in a few exemplars from Smith and two more from Oxford, we see how much more closely the Smith exemplars match.

Smith’s share in common with the contested exemplar — even more conspicuously — a tendency of all three of the arms of the letter, especially the top one, to jut out for some length to the left beyond the riser. This is in sharp contrast to Oxford’s, which either line up — especially the middle arm — exactly, or nearly so, with the riser, or else in seemingly controlled variation jut outward in a very controlled decorative flourish.

Oxford’s capital E shows a high amount of natural variation. Occasionally he even uses the Greek “Epsilon” capital E, as in the last example. But one feature his capital E’s have in common is that they are usually distinguished by one or another of the decorative flourishes that Imlay wrongly thinks is characteristic of Smith’s italic hand.

In contrast, Smith’s capital E is, like the contested exemplar,   utilitarian in appearance.  None of  the three arms have any decorative elements or flourishes on them.

The more complete analysis on which this blog post depends (although not carefully edited or ready for presentation), includes analysis of all of the other letters for which I could derive plausible exemplars from the questioned document as reproduced in Imlay’s article. These include small letters l, i, p, a, e, and d, and capital letters B and H. Each comparison confirms, although perhaps in more subtle ways, the conclusion that the hand of the questioned document is Smith’s, not Oxford’s.

Against such evidence Imlay would have us believe that  Sir Thomas Smith “did not have time” to be “doodling” in his book, while perhaps a “child in the long winter evenings” might have “little else to do” (15) and assures us that one of her colleagues identified the drawings as “the work of a child of about ten or eleven.”

As attractive as this fantasy might be — and as much as the modern reader might want to believe that the adult Smith lacked a sense of humor that would express itself in doodling the margins of books on long winter (or summer)  evenings — it has no merit when posed against the hard evidence of forensic paleography.

As this blog post is already overly long, I will conclude with only one more letter.

Capital letter “A” furnishes another excellent illustration of the principle of natural variation. The first of the contested document exemplars (Table Six), is distinctly assymetrical, with a low sloping descender with a broad curve and a foot on the right descender. In this case the crossbar terminates precisely at the right descender.

Questioned Document Smith Oxford

 Table Six.

This is one of the letters that at first suggested to me that Smith was not the annotator, while Oxford might be. Looking at only the first of the two questioned document exemplars and comparing them to Oxford’s, you can see why.

But if we include the second of the questioned exemplars, and compare them to Smith’s a different picture emerges.

Like his E’s, Smith’s A’s tend to be much more utilitarian in character than Oxford’s, composed primarily of straight lines and lacking the decorative feel of the first contested exemplar. This, as you can see, is exactly the form mirrored in the second contested exemplar.

On the other hand, the third example from Smith shows how tentative such generalizations must be. Although the above description captures most of his capital As, he is quite capable of making one with a bit more flourish to it, typically by supplying a long tail to the lefthand stroke and a small footing to the righthand one.

When we turn to the Oxford exemplars, on the other hand, we can easily see that the questioned document samples are a better match to Smith than they are to Oxford.

Oxford’s capital A’s show the same tendency, observed before in the capital M, to form an asymmetric shoulder, more rounded on the left and more straight and angular on the right. He almost always terminates the right descender with a footing, although somewhat less pronounced than that seen in the first of the questioned document exemplars.

Most interesting of all, although the curving left descender of the Oxford exemplars might superficially seem to match that on the second questioned document samples, it is apparent on closer inspection that the descender in those exemplars descends in a much tighter curve and does not in fact match even the questioned document exemplar with which it shares most in common.

By this point in time we should be prepared to form a more or less definitive opinion about at least one thing. The questioned document samples do not match those we have found from the Earl of Oxford’s documented holograph.

But we can in fact go further and say that they strongly appear to match those of Smith’s. Given that the Queen’s College curator of the collection Karen Begg is already on record suggesting that Smith is the annotator, it would seem that this is by far the most plausible solution to the puzzle.

Indeed, a significant preponderance of available evidence confirms that  Begg is correct.  Apparently aware of the inconclusive nature of her speculations, Ms. Imlay concludes her de Vere Society newsletter article with a request for suggestions about how to proceed.

We are now in a position to offer some informed suggestions.

First, after reading this article if Ms. Imlay still believes that there is any reasonable basis for thinking that the annotations are by de Vere, I recommend that she immediately consult a professional paleographer such as Ms. Will for an independent opinion.

Such a professional will probably need a number of better quality photographic reproductions of the three hands in question than those I had available here. In my own opinion, however, the answer is likely to confirm the analysis present here, and supported by curator Begg, that the annotations (and therefore the drawings) are by Smith.

[i] “Holograph” is a technical term in handwriting analysis that denotes a sample with a signature attached to it. That’s important because such a document – unless forged – is used to establish a sample baseline for making comparisons with a questioned sample document.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


3 Responses to “The Earl of Oxford’s annotations in Tacitus and Blondus?”

  1. rikwalter says:

    Nicely done, Roger. Nicely done.

  2. William Ray says:

    I have no knowledge of the paleographic issues discussed here. The reservation I would have about a hypothesis that Oxford annotated a Tacitus history owned by Thomas Smith is that, one, Oxford would be marking his master’s book, and two, he was young at 8-11 years to be reading Tacitus and making comments. I have no doubt though that the terse Latin of Tacitus, Germania for instance, affected the writing style and the historical philosophy of the later Shakespeare canon.

    Tacitus was the ghost lurking in the Shakespeare Histories, in terms of being a model of descriptive style and vividness of imagery. For instance Henry V moving among his soldiers in disguise, speaking to them or overhearing their complaints has been traced to Tacitus. The Shakespeare Histories’ classic dramatizations did not come out of nothing. It is shallow of Stratfordian thinkers (e.g., James Shapiro) to assume literary creativity is sui generis rather than creativity in connection with an existing continuum.

    Oxford had a personal basis in both experience, the Border Rebellions, and learning, his vast knowledge of the Greek and Latin histories, for ‘Shakespeare’s’ skill and imagination, –and I might even say a sense of joining the honored tradition of heroic war commentary, which began with Homer. It was an honored aristocratic tradition. Only aristocrats could be heroes. Like Thucydides, he put great speeches only in their voices.

    In some ways Homer has never been surpassed as a writer of war, but he has been equaled in the sense of Xenophon knowing Homer and Thucydides knowing Xenophon, all the way to the American Civil War historian Shelby Foote. Great writers about war have been warriors themselves: Marcus Aurelius, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Grant, Churchill, Sassoon, Thesiger. Oxford had seen war in Scotland, his opportunity to compare Tacitus and agree. It was Tacitus after all who wrote, “They make a desert and call it peace.” He had written this about Britain. Oxford wrote more, the foundation myth of the modern nation of the same name. The Oxford/Shakespeare story, even yet unwritten, is a strange saga of sacrificing the exemplar of the early English nation under the pedestal of his work.

  3. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Thanks Rik. I appreciate the read.

    William – I agree completely that the bard knew Tacitus. But your reservations about the annotations — that he was not likely to be considered fit reading for a ten year old (being considered, a bit like Machiavelli, a “wicked” author) , and that such a ten year old would not be likely to be making drawings and notes in his master’s books — are both good ones that add to the contextual basis for rejecting Imlay’s conclusion.

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