Oxfordian Myths:
Was Burghley Called "Polus"?


  • Introduction
  • "Polus" in Gratulationes Valdinenses
  • "Polus" in Oxfordian Myth
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited


    Anyone who wishes to argue that the works we know as Shakespeare's were actually written by Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, faces the problem that no contemporary ever credited Oxford with writing so much as a line that is now generally credited to Shakespeare. Oxfordians must look elsewhere for evidence, and they have sought it in
    verbal parallels between the works of Shakespeare and Oxford, or in the fact that some of the verse forms used by one were also used by the other; they have even argued that Oxford's reputation as a poet was so great that he must have been Shakespeare. Unfortunately for the Oxfordians, the alleged evidence for their arguments cannot stand up under scrutiny. The most common argument is that Shakespeare's works are somehow "about" Oxford's life. One point that Oxfordians raise repeatedly is that since some critics have suggested that the character of Polonius in Hamlet may owe something to Lord Burghley, Hamlet himself must have been Oxford's self-portrait. In an op-ed piece that appeared in the Washington Post on March 21, 1999, David Ignatius embraced a hoary Oxfordian myth when he said, "The officious, advice-giving character Polonius may have been based on Lord Burghley (whose nickname, it happens, was 'Polus')."

    As it happens, there is no evidence that "Polus" was Burghley's nickname. David Ignatius was parroting an Oxfordian myth that has been around for fifty years, and for fifty years Oxfordians have repeated or even embellished this myth without checking its sources. Ignatius picked up the myth from an essay in Harper's, whose author had picked it up from another Oxfordian, who had -- well, the story is a complicated one, and will take some time to unravel. This essay will first go where no Oxfordian has gone before, to the actual source material that is the basis for this myth. Once it has been shown that the myth is baseless, we will trace its appearance in a variety of Oxfordian sources over the last half century, and see what lies behind its appearance in the Washington Post.

    "Polus" in Gratulationes Valdinenses

    The only evidence Oxfordians have ever offered for the existence of this supposed nickname is that "Polus" was, they say, repeatedly used by Gabriel Harvey in a Latin tribute to Burghley that appeared in his Gratulationes Valdinenses. In fact, however, Harvey never uses the word "polus" in any poem in the Burghley section of Gratulationes Valdinenses, and while the word appears in other poems in the volume, it is never used as Burghley's or anybody else's nickname.

    Gabriel Harvey's obscure Gratulationes Valdinenses has strangely become one of the central texts for the Oxfordian case, yet even Oxfordians who refer to the work seem not to have read it. Harvey was a young Cambridge scholar in 1578 when Queen Elizabeth and many members of her court stopped at nearby Audley End on a royal progress. Harvey participated in a scholarly debate and also presented manuscripts of Latin poems that were later published. Gratulationes Valdinenses comprises four "books": the queen is the subject of the first book; the second honors the Earl of Leicester; the third is for Burghley; and the fourth is devoted to the Earl of Oxford, Sir Christopher Hatton, and Philip Sidney. Each book consists of poems honoring or somehow appropriate to the subjects; most of the poems in the work are by Harvey, but there are also a number by such contemporary Latin writers as Charles Utenhove, Pietro Bizarro, Walter Haddon, and Abraham Hartwell. Harvey's volume was never reprinted, but in 1938 Thomas Hugh Jameson produced a scholarly edition and translation for his Ph.D. dissertation, and it is his edition and translation that is quoted here.

    The word "polus" does not appear in any poem by Gabriel Harvey in book 3, the Burghley section of Gratulationes Valdinenses. Oxfordians have stated that there are from three to six such instances, but there are in fact zero: Harvey never uses the word in any poem in the Burghley section.

    The word "polus" does appear twice in an epigram on Burghley by Pietro Bizarro (translations are by Thomas Jameson from his 1938 edition of Gratulationes Valdinenses; I have put forms of "polus" and its English equivalents in boldface):

    Et locus, et Tempus paret, et ipse Polus. [GV, book 3, page 4, line 22].
    And Space and Time, and even Heaven obey you.

    Cui Deus ex alto sic fauet ipse polo. [3.5.6]
    Whom God himself thus favors from high heaven.

    Note here that even in Pietro Bizarro's poem, "polus" is not being used as Burghley's nickname -- nor, for that matter, is "locus" or "Tempus" used as a nickname for Burghley.

    There is one instance where "Polus" is a name, but it is not a nickname and does not refer to Burghley. In Pietro Bizarro's epigram, Burghley is compared favorably to earlier statesmen:

    Cromwellus tibi dat palmam; dat Vintoniensis;
    Dat Checus, et Smithus, Vuttoniusque tibi,
    Quorsum ego Tomstallum, Morumue, Polumue recorder?
    CAECILIO primas illeque, et ille refert. [3.4.11-14]

    Cromwell cedes you the palm, Winchester cedes it to you,
    Cheke cedes it, and Smith and Wotton entirely to you.
    Why should I even speak of Tunstall, More, and Pole?
    To Cecil one and all agree in giving the first place.

    It may be that Oxfordians who consider instances of "polus" in the volume as uses of Burghley's supposed nickname have never heard of Cardinal Pole. In Bizarro's epigram, the Catholics Cuthbert Tunstall, Thomas More, and Reginald Pole are almost beneath his notice as he extolls Burghley. Surely even Oxfordians couldn't imagine that Burghley would have been flattered by an identification with Cardinal Pole, who had sided with the pope against Henry VIII, and who was Archbishop of Canterbury during Mary's reign. In any event, Burghley is not being called another Cardinal Pole (or another Tunstall or More); rather he is so far superior to those Catholic statesmen that they are hardly worth mentioning. Nor is "Polus" here used even as Pole's nickname; rather, it is the standard Latin form of the name, just as "Morus" is for Thomas More.

    The two instances of "polus" meaning "heaven" and the reference to Cardinal Pole in Bizarro's poem are the only occurences of "polus" or "Polus" in the Burghley section of Gratulationes Valdinenses. As we have noted, Harvey himself never uses the word in any poem in the Burghley section. In fact, there is not a single instance in Gratulationes Valdinenses of Burghley's being called "polus" by anyone. Charles Utenhove does pun on the name Cecil (wittily suggesting that the name is derived from the Sicilian muses) but doesn't use the word "polus." Several poems refer to Burghley as "Nestor," and he is, of course, called "Burghley," but never "polus."

    The word "polus" also appears in sections of Gratulationes Valdinenses that are not devoted to Burghley. Here is a line from an epigram Gabriel Harvey wrote about a portrait of the queen (Harvey imagines Elizabeth as a goddess, and has prayed that her reign will last forever):

    Angeli erunt Angli: nostraque terra polus. [1.12.32]
    And English will be angels, our land the pole!
    Jameson's translation here is not as helpful as it might be, because he is constrained by his desire to rhyme. A better translation of "polus" would be "heaven." In any event, Harvey is not saying that if the queen reigns eternally, the English will all be angels and their land will be Lord Burghley.

    This is from a poem by Edward Grant on the bear in Leicester's emblem:

    At Cynosura polo splendet contermina summo [2.ii.13]
    While Cynosura shines neighborly in the great pole
    Grant, of course, is not calling Leicester "polus," nor is he saying that Leicester and Burghley are actually the same person. "Cynosura" is the constellation Ursa Minor (which is close to the pole star), and Leicester, according to Grant, is the British Cynosura. If Grant had been writing about Burghley, then his use of the adjective "polaris" would probably count as well with Oxfordians, although, once again, there is no nick-naming involved:
    Septenis stellis micat at Cynosura polaris. [2.ii.25]
    Cynosura shines among the seven polar stars.

    Dum micat astrigero Cynosura polaris Olympo [2.iii.11]
    As long as Polar Cynosura shines in starry Olympus

    Oxfordians seem unaware that Harvey also used "polus" once in his long poem on Oxford:
    Ipse Polus caeptis aderit, ridebit et Aether, [4.7.10]
    Heaven itself will attend your adventures, and Aether will smile
    In none of these instances is Burghley, or the queen, or Leicester, or Oxford called "Polus." The only person called "Polus" anywhere in Gratulationes Valdinenses is Cardinal Pole, because "Polus" is the standard Latin form of his name. I suppose one could say that the word "polus" is more closely associated with Leicester than with Burghley, but even he is not called "Polus," and the word is not used as anybody's nickname by any poet anywhere in the volume. Nor does the use of "polus" in poems on the queen, Leicester, and Oxford mean that any or all of them were actually the same person as Burghley.

    Yet for half a century, Oxfordians have repeated the falsehood that Gabriel Harvey addressed Burghley as "Polus," his supposed nickname. Let us trace the history of this error, and see what it tells us of Oxfordian standards of scholarship.


    "Polus" in Oxfordian Myth

    The "'Polus' = 'Burghley'" story does not appear in works by such early Oxfordians as J. Thomas Looney, Bernard M. Ward, or Eva Turner Clark; the earliest version that I have been able to find dates from 1950. In that year, J. Shera Atkinson said,
    The Gratulationes Valdinenses of Gabriel Harvey -- the addresses of welcome delivered by him as Public Orator of Cambridge University to Queen Elizabeth and her court at Audley End in July, 1578 -- include addresses in Latin verse to Elizabeth, the Earl of Leicester, Lord Burghley, the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Hatton, Philip Sidney, and others of less importance.

    Following a custom which still prevails for Latin addresses of this kind, much play is made in the various addresses by means of puns on the name of the person involved. Thus the address to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, many times uses the words "Sicilides" and "Caecilius," by way of puns on "Cecil." More interesting however is the use, three times, of the word Polus -- an uncommon word, "dragged in."

    The use of the word suggests -- if not actual evidence -- that at that time -- 1578 -- there was a current nickname for Cecil, either Polus or something very like it. If this is so, the name Polonius, in Hamlet, was derived from it. It is generally thought that the original of Polonius was Lord Burghley. (Atkinson, 668)

    Atkinson probably saw Gratulationes Valdinenses, but it is not clear that Atkinson was able to read the work. Atkinson did not notice that many of the poems in the volume were by authors other than Harvey. Atkinson does not cite the lines where "polus" appears or try to translate any of the Latin. "Polus" is not an extremely uncommon word; it appears even in small Latin dictionaries and was used by such classical writers as Virgil, Ovid, and Horace to mean "sky" or "heaven" --the sense in which it was used by Pietro Bizarro and other poets in Gratulationes Valdinenses. Although to Atkinson the word seems "dragged in," Gabriel Harvey and the other poets of Gratulationes Valdinenses were writing in a deliberately classical style, and their diction reflected their deep reading of such poets as Virgil and Oxford. The word is not "extremely uncommon" even to modern students of Latin. A third-year high school Latin textbook I checked glosses the word "polus, -i, m. pole; by metonymy, sky" (Gillingham and Barrett, 592). A high school Aeneid glosses the word, which occurs ten times in Virgil's epic, as "polus, i , pole, sky, heaven" (Pharr, 25 and elsewhere). Having access to a good high school Latin textbook would have helped Atkinson's analysis considerably, and a basic knowledge of English history would have enabled Atkinson to note that in one instance "Polus" is used as the standard Latin rendering of Reginald Pole's name. Nor does Atkinson seem aware that "polus" appears in the other three sections of Gratulationes Valdinenses, which are not devoted to Burghley. Thus there is no reason to accept Atkinson's guess that "Polus" was Burghley's nickname.

    If any Oxfordian had troubled to check Atkinson's essay against the actual text of Gratulationes Valdinenses, it is probable that the "polus" myth would have quickly died. Since Jameson's edition and translation of Harvey's volume had appeared twelve years before Atkinson wrote, mere ignorance of Latin does not explain why Oxfordians spread the "Polus" myth without looking at the poems in Harvey's volume. What was probably the most significant boost to the myth came in 1975, when J. Valcour Miller wrote,

    Gabriel Harvey's Latin address to Lord Burghley, delivered at Audley End in 1578 and printed in Gratulationes Valdinenses ... refers to Burghley three times as "Polus." The Latin definition of "Polus" is "the end of the axle around which the wheel turns," or "that around which the heavens turn," or "north" or "guiding star." These definitions could certainly be appropriately applied to Burghley, the chief minister of state around whom great matters revolved. In the same address, Harvey uses the words Sicilides and Caecilius several times, punning on the name "Cecil." Therefore his use of Polus three times indicated this was a current nickname for Lord Burghley. [J. Valcour Miller, 432.]
    Whereas Atkinson seems to have had a look at Gratulationes Valdinenses, without being able to read it, J. Valcour Miller has clearly seen Atkinson, whom he does not cite, although he does refer to the volume in which Atkinson's essay had been reprinted the previous year (447n). The only clue that Miller actually looked at the Latin volume is the claim that Harvey calls Burghley "Polus" three times. In truth, while the word "polus" does not appear in any Harvey poem about Burghley, it does appear twice in Bizarro's epigram on Burghley, as does the homonym "Polus" naming Cardinal Pole. Thus, although Miller does not seem to have been able to read the Latin either, he was able to count, although he did not know exactly what he was counting. He does not seem aware of Jameson's edition and translation, which had appeared 37 years earlier; nor does he know that "polus" was also used by classical poets to mean "sky" or "heaven"; nor that the word appears in other sections of Gratulationes Valdinenses. Miller's exposition might not have been taken up by other Oxfordians except that it appeared in Ruth Loyd Miller's Oxfordian Vistas, a collection of Oxfordian essays that was a complement to her edition of Looney's Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the founding tract of Oxfordianism. Later Oxfordian references to the "Polus" tale cite J. Valcour Miller rather than Atkinson, if they bother to give a reference at all.

    The same year, 1975, the "Polus" myth was referred to in another reprinting of an Oxfordian classic by Ruth Loyd Miller:

    Harvey's address to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, referred to him as "Polus," suggestive of the name "Polonius" in Hamlet. (Ruth Loyd Miller, 49n)
    Ruth Loyd Miller's note does not cite Atkinson or J. Valcour Miller, but since she was the editor of the volumes in which their analyses had appeared, we may assume that she had them in mind. She did not, of course, bother to quote any lines from Gratulationes Valdinenses itself.

    Charlton Ogburn, the most important Oxfordian of the last fifty years, was one who cited Miller rather than Atkinson:

    "Polus" ... as J. Valcour Miller points out in a striking study of the many analogues between Polonius and the Lord Treasurer, was thrice applied to Burghley by Gabriel Harvey in addressing him in tribute at Audley End in 1578. The sobriquet, Miller explains, is from a Latin word for the pole around which the heavens turn and the axle of a wheel revolves. (Ogburn, 514n; the same note occurs in both the 1984 and 1992 editions.]
    Ogburn, needless to say, quotes no lines from Gratulationes Valdinenses, and it seems clear from other references in his writings that he had never seen the work. Yet Ogburn's reputation is very high among Oxfordians, and his massive tome seems to be the first place Oxfordians go when they are searching for information, so his praise of Miller undoubtedly strengthened the plausibility of the myth. One Oxfordian who, unlike Ogburn, probably did peek at Harvey's volume is Andrew Hannas, who refers to it in a 1993 essay that has been republished online:
    De Vere also would have filed away Harvey's epithet for Cecil, "Polus," sounded half a dozen times in his 1578 toast to Cecil, literally of course referring to the central pole or axis on which the earth turns, but for an ear tuned to the Greek of Plato also the name of the blustering, sycophantic protege of the sophist Gorgias, whom Socrates mocks in the Gorgias much the way Hamlet does Polonius (literally "colt" in Greek, polos, punned on polios, "gray", also befitting Cecil).
    Hannas tells us that the word "Polus" is an "epithet" for Burghley and that it is "sounded half a dozen times" in Harvey's "1578 toast." It is surprising that he does not quote a single one of these "half a dozen" instances, since his essay is greatly concerned with Harvey's Gratulationes Valdinenses, the volume in which the "toast" presumably appears. What's more, Hannas knows of Jameson's 1938 edition and translation, a line of which he quotes -- yet Hannas never names Jameson but refers obliquely to his scholarly work as "a study of Harvey's encomiums." If he had bothered to check Jameson more closely, he would have seen that the Oxfordian "polus" myth was based on misreadings and mistranslations. While Hannas was turning his ear to the Greek of Plato, he might have listened for the Greek word polos (polos), which could also be glossed "pole, sky, heaven" and which Plato used in related senses in Cratylus 405c and Timaeus 40c, but it would have been more useful for his readers if he had quoted the lines in Harvey's volume that he thought supported his analysis. Of course, if he had bothered to check, he would have seen that Harvey never uses the word "polus" in any of his poems in the Burghley section, and he would have realized that the Oxfordian myth was based entirely on error.

    Hannas's essay was put online by Mark Alexander, who was also taken with the myth:

    Some have argued that the name Polonius is a takeoff on a couple of nicknames that Burghley had: Polus (as mentioned in Gabriel Harvey's 1578 Latin address to Lord Burghley) and Pondus (found in a letter from Roger Manners to the Earl of Rutland dated June 2, 1583). (Alexander, part 2; in part 3 of his essay, Alexander no longer refers to the "some" who "have argued" that "Polus" was Burghley's nickname but accepts the myth as fact).
    The evidence that Burghley was ever known as "Pondus" is extremely slight -- as Alexander says, the word does appear in a letter, and although Burghley is not named, Oxfordians have guessed that he is being referred to -- but the evidence for "Polus" is, as we have seen nonexistent. Alexander, like the other Oxfordians who alluded to Harvey's supposed use of "polus" for Burghley, never bothered to check.

    In 1994, the Oxfordian Roger Stritmatter informed readers of SHAKSPER, the Shakespeare Electronic Conference, that "Cecil was known around court as 'Pondus,' and sometimes 'Polus.'"

    The myth reappears in the April 1999 Harper's, where Mark Anderson says,

    Oxford satirizes his guardian and father-in-law, the officious bumbling royal advisor Lord Burghley (nicknamed "Polus"), as the officious, bumbling royal advisor Polonius. (Anderson, 48)
    Anderson's judment of the very capable Burghley is harsh and ill-informed; a fairer assesment is given by the early Oxfordian Bernard M. Ward, who said, writing of Burghley's death,
    his loss to the Queen was incalculable. His career as Minister to the Crown has never been equalled in English history. For forty years, without a single break, he was her right-hand man, serving first as her Principal Secretary and afterwards as Lord Treasurer. (Ward, 331)
    Anderson's opinion of Burghley aside, we note that he gave no evidence for the nickname myth. Another contributor to this issue of Harper's asked that magazine's fact-checkers for the source of Alexander's claim that Burghley's nickname was "Polus" and was faxed a page of J. Valcour Miller's 1975 essay, which had been Alexander's source. Although Miller's essay cited no lines from Gratulationes Valdinenses, the fact that the "Polus" myth had appeared in print before seemed reason enough for Harper's fact-checkers to allow it to spread.

    Thus the myth spread to David Ignatius, who in the Washington Post said,

    And what if "Hamlet," that supremely introspective play, actually tracked the author's life story? Mark K. Anderson notes some of the parallels in his Harper's essay. The officious, advice-giving character Polonius may have been based on Lord Burghley (whose nickname, it happens, was "Polus").
    As we have seen, it does not happen that Burghley's nickname was "polus"; what happened, rather, was that Ignatius had joined the fifty year Oxfordian history of repeating this error.


    We have come full circle. The Oxfordian myth that Burghley was nicknamed "Polus" has survived for fifty years because Oxfordians did not bother to check the supposed source of this nickname, Harvey's Gratulationes Valdinenses. Anderson's recent Harper's essay and Ignatius's Washington Post op-ed piece were rare opportunities for Oxfordians to present their arguments before a large general audience, and that both men in the short space allotted to them used the "polus" myth suggests how important it has become to their cause. Why have Oxfordians not looked at Harvey's volume? They may not have felt comfortable enough in Latin to check Harvey's original, but Jameson's scholarly edition of Gratulationes Valdinenses with a full translation into English appeared in 1938. So far as one can tell, Jameson's edition was never looked at by J. Shera Atkinson, by J. Valcour Miller, by Ruth Loyd Miller, by Charlton Ogburn, by Mark Anderson, by Mark Alexander, or by David Ignatius. Andrew Hannas, on the other hand, certainly knew of Jameson's translation in 1993, because he quotes a line from it in one part of his essay, but he never bothered to check the uses of "polus" in the work.

    The question whether Burghley was nicknamed "Polus" is, of course, a minor one. Even if the Oxfordians had been correct, that would not have strengthened their case. Some actual scholars have suggested that the character of Polonius may owe something to Burghley, and Burghley certainly was lampooned by Spenser, so it is conceivable though far from certain that Shakespeare (who, like Spenser, had never been Burghley's ward) used some elements of the statesman in his character Polonius. What is telling about the history of this Oxfordian myth is how it could have been exploded at any point in the last fifty years by any Oxfordian who had bothered to do a bit of proper research on the question. A reader who browses through the other pages at the Shakespeare Authorship site will find many other Oxfordian myths refuted, and in many cases the same pattern holds: an Oxfordian myth arises, and later Oxfordians are content to repeat and even elaborate that myth without returning to the ostensible evidence. Given this pattern, the "polus" myth is not an isolated instance but is representative of the carelessness and lack of scholarship without which Oxfordianism could not exist.


    Works Cited

    Alexander, Mark. Internet essay. "Polonius as Lord Burghley"
  • part 2: http://home.earthlink.net/~mark_alex/atoms/corambis2.html;
  • part 3: http://home.earthlink.net/~mark_alex/atoms/corambis3.html.

    Anderson, Mark. "Thy Countenance Shakes Spears." Harper's April 1999: 46-49.

    Atkinson, J. Shera. "Polonius." 1950; reprinted in Ruth Loyd Miller, ed., Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays, 3rd edition. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1974, pages 668-70. This edition is a partial reprint of Eva Turner Clark's 1933 Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays, with numerous deletions and additions by Miller.

    Clark, Eva Turner. Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Farquhar, 1931.

    Gillingham, Charles E. and Mary A. Barrett. Latin: Our Living Heritage, Book III.Columbus OH: Merrill, 1964.

    Hannas, Andrew. "Gabriel Harvey and the Genesis of 'William Shakespeare.'" 1993; republished on the Internet at http://home.earthlink.net/~mark_alex/atoms/harvey.html

    Ignatius, David. "Honor the True Bard." Op-ed. Washington Post, March 21, 1999: B7.

    Jameson, Thomas Hugh. "The Gratulationes Valdinenses of Gabriel Harvey. Dissertation. Yale University, 1938. Anne Arbor: UMI, 1994. 9332756.

    Looney, J. Thomas. "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. New York: Murray, 1920.

    Miller, J. Valcour. "Corambis, Polonius, and the Great Lord Burghley in Hamlet." In Ruth Loyd Miller, ed., Oxfordian Vistas, volume 2 (sic) of "Shakespeare" Identified. Third edition. Port Washington NY: Kennikat Press, 1975: 430-47.

    Miller, Ruth Loyd, ed., A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres from the Original Edition of 1573. Second edition. Port Washington NY: Kennikat, 1975. (This edition is a reprint of Bernard M. Ward's 1926 edition, with deletions, rewritings, and additions by Miller; Ward's edition is a partial reprint of the 1573 work by George Gascoigne).

    Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality. Second edition. McLean VA: EPM, 1992.

    Ignatius, David. "Honor the True Bard." Op-ed essay. Washington Post, March 21, 1999: B7.

    Pharr, Clyde. Vergil's Aeneid: Books I-VI. Revised edition with notes, vocabulary, and gramatical appendix by Clyde Pharr. Heath: 1964.

    Stritmatter, Roger. "Polonius." Post to SHAKSPER: Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0411. Sunday, 8 May 1994. http://www.shaksper.net/archives/1994/0408.html.

    Ward, Bernard M. The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford 1550-1604 from Contemporary Documents. London: Murray, 1928.


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