On 24 March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died.  Four days later, Francis Bacon, the lawyer and philosopher (not yet a knight) wrote to John Davies, the lawyer and poet (also not yet a knight), as the latter rode north to meet the new king, King James, who was riding south to take up the throne of England.  Bacon’s letter asks Davies to speak well of him to the king and court; to use his name well, and to defend it ‘if there be any biting or nibbling at it in that place’. He signs off with the sentence ‘So desiring you to be good to concealed poets’.  James Spedding, still the accepted authority on Sir Francis Bacon, said:

The allusion to ‘concealed poets’ I cannot explain. But as Bacon occasionally wrote letters and devices, which were to be fathered by Essex, he may have written verses for a similar purpose, and Davis may have been in on the secret.[1]

Those who believe that Bacon is the author of Shakespeare’s works have seized upon this reference as evidence for their man: by his own confession, Bacon was ‘a concealed poet’.   It’s true that he appears to be referring to a specific ‘concealed poet’ or ‘concealed poets’ (the referent may be singular or plural).   It’s true that the rest of the letter is entirely about ensuring that John Davies is good to him in the king’s company, and there is therefore a strong possibility that he is referring to himself.

But he may be alluding to another ‘concealed poet’ or ‘concealed poets’ of whom he has knowledge.  The very first authorship theory to be openly espoused, by Delia Bacon in 1857, was that Francis Bacon headed up a group of writers who collectively produced the works of Shakespeare as an entertaining humanist education for the still largely illiterate population, who were unlikely to read books, but would go to plays.  We note from a letter to his brother Anthony dated 15 January 1564 that Francis Bacon retained young men at Twickenham Park for copying out works of various kinds:

I have here an idle pen or two specially one that was cozened, thinking to have got some money this term. I pray you send me some­what else for them to write out beside your Irish collection which is almost done. There is a collection of Dr James [Dean of Christchurch] of foreign states largeliest of Flanders, which though it be no great matter, yet I would be glad to have it.

We know from the testimony of Shakespeare’s fellow share-holders, Heminges and Condell, that the manuscripts they received from him were unusually free of crossings out, which they took as an indication of his genius.  But any good writer knows that genius-level writing involves a great deal of crossing out. It is therefore most likely that what Heminges and Condell received were what we call ‘fair copies’; transcriptions of the kind of thing Francis Bacon’s ‘idle pens’ would have produced.  This is not, of course, proof that Bacon was in any way involved with producing the Shakespeare canon.

In his book The Shakespeare Claimants, H.N. Gibson says that

The term ‘concealed poet’ was in general use for all courtly writers who considered it infra dig to publish their work under their own names.  Bacon may well have been a concealed poet in this sense, and was sometimes an unconcealed one, for he published a rather inferior metrical version of the Psalms under his own name.  Sir John Davies was well-known as a patron of poets, and Bacon was obviously trying ‘to get on the right side of him’ by appealing to this soft spot in his nature.[2]

I have found no evidence to support Gibson’s claim that the term ‘concealed poet’ was in general use at court, or anywhere else.  A search of Early English Books Online for the phrase ‘concealed poet’ from 1473 to 1900 gives only two hits, both being instances of this letter (published in 1648 and 1657).  Gibson’s claim that ‘Sir John Davies was well-known as a patron of poets’ is also unsupported.  In 1603 he was a lawyer and poet himself, not a knight, or a gentleman of means.  His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography does not mention patronage of other writers and I have seen no evidence anywhere else that supports this claim.

So Bacon’s ‘concealed poets’ remains unexplained. Whether or not it has any connection to the Shakespeare canon, we do not know, but it is another piece of evidence against the orthodox contention that a hidden author is implausible.   It is clear that many authors concealed their identities and so far we have two pieces of testimony supporting the idea that some even engaged fronts.  However, we have not yet examined evidence that might suggest the author of Shakespeare’s works was among them.  We will begin this process in the next chapter.


[1] Spedding, The Works of Francis Bacon Vol X, p.65.

[2] H.N. Gibson, The Shakespeare Claimants (1962), p. 57.

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