The third earl of Southampton was born on 6 October 1573, and since his father died when he was only eight years old, had lived a very long minority. Therefore 6 October 1594 was a very important occasion which would mark the day that he came into full control of his estates. Place House was busy preparing for this festive occasion

But deep into the night of October 4th 1594 the porter was woken by a furious banging at the gatehouse door of Place House. Three men, who had clearly been riding a long distance, were demanding admission. Two of them were recognised as Sir Henry and Sir Charles Danvers, both good friends with the earl, and were admitted. The servants took away the hot and tired horses and one of them noticed that Sir Henry’s saddle was covered in dried blood. Danvers’ servant, John, was also fed and accommodated.

The earl was woken and the brothers brought to his chamber where they explained their unexpected call. There had been a quarrel with an old adversary, Sir Henry Long, during which Long had been killed. The two men were therefore fugitives and needed help from their good friend. It was not denied and the following morning they moved to Whiteley Lodge, the home of the Southampton’s steward, Thomas Dymoke. The house, which later became Whitely farm house was very much off the beaten track and no doubt Southampton hoped that they would be safer there than in the more public view of Place House at Titchfield.

There is a surprising amount of detail about the event and its aftermath mainly because Queen Elizabeth had no tolerance for this sort of behaviour and commissioned a full enquiry. The Longs and the Danvers had been enemies for many years in that part of the world and the initial cause of the feud was forgotten. The default position for both families was that the other family was always to blame when anything went awry. In this instance it appears that Sir Henry Long and his brother Sir Walter were at dinner with several other gentlemen at the Chamberlain’s house in Corsham in Wiltshire. The Danvers brothers burst in upon them with 17 or 18 other men with the intention of settling their long running feud with the Longs. In the scuffle, Sir Henry Long was run through with a sword and killed. Understanding the gravity of their deed, the two brothers fled.

Corsham in Wiltshire is some 70 miles away from Titchfield and the three men must have ridden extremely hard to reach Titchfield in a day. One must assume that they changed horses several times along the way.

There is some suspicion that the Danvers brothers had planned this showdown and even that the Earl of Southampton had foreknowledge. As with all quarrels between neighbour that develop into feuds, there is no way to determine who cast the first stone. Recriminations were mutual with each side blaming the other. The last straw may have been, according to Lady Danvers, that the Longs had killed a Danvers man. This seems plausible, and the Danvers brothers would naturally take it upon themselves to take immediate revenge.

On the following Saturday morning the fugitives were holed up at Whiteley Lodge. This was politic. At his coming of age party many people would be coming to Place House to mark the occasion and it would be impossible therefore for the Danvers brothers to lie low. Southampton did ride over on Monday to see his friends and on Tuesday they were escorted to the Bursledon ferry, where a boat took them down river to Calshot Castle on the New Forest shore. Presumably the rode over to Bursledon so as to steer clear of Titchfield. Dymoke accompanied them. There they remained as guests of the Deputy Keeper of the Castle until Friday when a message came from the earl that the authorities had picked up the trail. The castle was now a risky place to be, because if challenged, the keeper would have to yield his guests. They left hurriedly, ‘in a great hurly burly’ and appear to have returned to Whitely, at least temporarily. A boat was now ready to take the fugitives to France, arranged by a young Arthur Bromfield, who had just entered the earl’s service and who would one day become his steward. Possibly the craft set out from the wharf at Titchfield, although a boat on the River Hamble at Bursledon was an equal possibility. Dymoke left four pieces of gold at Calshot Castle to be divided between the soldiers of the castle. Out of the country the brothers were now safe.

But the authorities were still looking.

Lawrence Grose was the sheriff of Southampton, and was one of those who raised the hue and cry against the Danvers brothers. He was on his way to Titchfield when he met some of the Earl of Southampton’s servants at the Itchen Ferry. They threatened the sheriff in the hope of deterring his further investigation.

Whereupon the said Grose passinge on the Itching ferry with his wife, the Saturday following, one Florio, an Italian, and one Humphrey Drewell the saide earle of Southampton’s servants, being in the saide passage Boate, threatened to cast him the saide Grose over board, and saide they would teach him to meddle with his fellowes, and many other threatening words.1

One of these men was John Florio, who, according to his book Second Fruits, published in 1598, was some years in the service of the Earl of Southampton. He was not a passive intellectual and was evidently willing to be robust in defence of the honour and interests of his lord. He was pro-active, anxious even, to show that he could be of good service no matter what the contingency.

John Florio was an interesting man and a writer of some prominence in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. He was born in London in 1553, and his Italian father, who was a former Franciscan reformed as a Protestant was then living in exile in England. When Mary came to the throne in 1555 he had to leave England and the family settled in Switzerland, where John was raised. As an adult, John made his way to England and was very successful in being adopted by a series of patrons, including the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Meanwhile the earl excused himself from Titchfield and went up to London.

Once in France the two brothers were well-received by King Henri IV. They were out of the reach of the English authorities and in that sense were safe; however, they were young men anxious to take up their careers at court as there was no future in exile, All they could do was amuse themselves while friends at court negotiated terms for their return. The earl of Essex, a man of some prominence and influence in 1594, was a voice for the Danvers brothers; even so, it took time, three and a half years in fact, before they were permitted to return. They were assessed a fine of £2,000 and a further £1,500 was to be paid to Sir Walter Long, brother of the murdered man. Once paid the Danvers brothers were pardoned on 30 June 1598 and allowed to return and take up their places in the Essex entourage.

Thus it was still possible for well-born gentlemen to get away with murder in the late 16th century, and even up to the 20th century (the instance of Lord Lucan for example) it was possible for the well-connected to escape severe punishment. It usually depended on the status of the victim. John Holland, earl of Huntingdon and a man prone to violence, tortured and executed a Carmelite friar who had spoken out against John of Gaunt in 1384. There were no consequences.

However, in the following year he murdered Ralph Stafford because one of Stafford’s men had killed a man in Holland’s service. This could not be so easily overlooked as Ralph was the heir to the earl of Stafford, so Huntingdon’s estates were confiscated. However, they were restored the following year.

Some scholars have proposed a connection between this real life story of feuding families with the production of Romeo and Juliet. Is there a connection? There are two answers: possibly and possibly not.

The chronology of events is this. The murder and subsequent escape of the Danvers brothers occurred in October 1594. There can be little doubt that Shakespeare and most Londoners would have known about the story but after the hue and cry subsided I imagine that it was largely forgotten.The Danvers brothers languished in Paris until they were permitted to return in 1598. Romeo and Juliet was most likely written in 1596.

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s plays which can be dated with some accuracy. Shakespeare’s company of actors had been formed in 1594 under the patronage of Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, who held the office of Lord Chamberlain. Hunsdon died on 15 July 1596 and the elderly Lord Cobham was appointed Lord Chamberlain. Cobham was very hostile to the acting company because of the creation of the roguish character we know as Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. In the original production Falstaff was Sir John Oldcastle, a historical figure and indeed friend of Prince Henry, later to become Henry V. Oldcastle was an ancestor of Lord Cobham and Cobham took umbrage at the depiction of Oldcastle as a scoundrel. The name was hurriedly changed to Falstaff but it is unlikely that Cobham was completely pacified. Thus it was left to Lord Hundson’s son, George Carey, to take over the patronage of the acting company, who were then known as Lord Hunsdon’s men. The ageing Lord Cobham died on 14 April 1597 and the second Baron Hunsdon succeeded to his father’s former office. The acting company once again became the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

There exists a very precise window, from 22 July 1596 to 14 April 1597, when the company was known as Lord Hunsdon’s Men. Therefore we are safe in assuming that the play was first performed during that period. When Romeo and Juliet was published in its first quarto edition in the Spring of 1597, the title page announced that “the play had often been played publicly by the right Honourable the L. of Hunsdon and his servants.” We can therefore say with some certainty that the play was performed during that seven month period.

Whether or not it was written before that date is another question. The part of Peter was almost certainly written for Will Kempe, the comic actor who joined the company in the latter half of 1594 when the theatres re-opened. However, there are some important internal clues which may help us to date the play accurately. Juliet, according to the Nurse was born 11 years before the events of the play, ‘since the earthquake now eleven years.’ (1.3.24) Interestingly enough there was a recorded earth tremor on 4 August 1585. It is also of interest that Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died on 11 August 1596, eleven years after his birth. Both events, particularly the loss of his son, must have deeply embedded Shakespeare’s consciousness as he was writing.

There is more. The brilliant pamphleteer Thomas Nashe published his Have With You to Saffron Walden in 1596. Shakespeare, as ever absorbing everything around him, picked up many of Nashe’s phrases and gave them new life in Romeo and Juliet. Examples are Mercutio’s reference to Tybalt as “Prince of Cats” and the Nurse’s “dishclout”, both of which appear in print for the first time in Nashe’s pamphlet. There is also an entry in the Stationer’s Register on 5 August 1596 for ‘a new ballad of Romeo and Juliet.’ The author is unknown and indeed no copies of this printed ballad are known to have survive, but its publication of this date is a good indicator of popular interest in the story.

The source of the play was a long poem of over 3,000 lines written by Arthur Brooke. Brooke was very much a minor poet. The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet was first published in 1562 and republished in 1582. Brooke drowned in the year following the publishing of his poem while on military service, so we will never know how he might have developed as a writer. His poem came out of an Italian and French story telling tradition about the rivalry of the Montacchi and the Capuletti and the separate tale of the star-crossed lovers, a story that would have been familiar in the tales of Pyramus and Thisbe and Troilus and Cressida. Brooke developed his story from a French version which in turn came from an Italian tale and the story takes place over several months.

Shakespeare undoubtedly used this as his main source and followed the story and the characters closely but in 1596, at the age of 32, Shakespeare was a master of his craft and his dramatic genius transformed the story from Brooke’s moralising and ponderous tale into a story which has survived centuries. Brooke was a committed Protestant and could not resist making the friar who marries Romeo and Juliet into an evil and corrupt figure. Shakespeare is neutral and Friar Laurence becomes a benign figure. Mercutio, in Brooke’s version a rival for the love of Juliet, becomes the brilliant ‘life and soul of the party’ who dominates the first part of the play. Moreover, the man with a sense of the dramatic transforms a story which unfolds over several months into an action of a few days.

It does seem certain that the play was written in 1596 and first performed in that year. This was eighteen months after the Danvers and Long affair but one can argue that it was in Shakespeare’s mind when he first embarked on Romeo and Juliet. The critic A L Rowse was convinced that this was very much in Shakespeare’s mind as he hunted down the appropriate story.

For his very next play he looked up a plot, Arthur Brooke’s old poem, based on a familiar Italian story. And so, safely placed in an Italian settinh, and with its Italian atmosphere, next year we have Romeo and Juliet.2

We cannot be entirely certain about this. We cannot know what was in Shakepeare’s mind when he was stimulated to write Romeo and Juliet, but we may not be too far off the mark to connect the sensational tale of feuding families in England in 1594 with the appearance of Romeo and Juliet in 1596. The survivors of the feud, the Danvers brothers, were still enduring idle activity in exile in Paris, hoping for a pardon that would enable them to get away with murder.

Sir Henry Danvers had a good career and a long life. He served with Essex in Ireland and appwears to have avoided involvement in the Essex plot of 1599. He was appointed Governor of Armagh in 1601 and in the following year Sergeant Major General of the army in Ireland. He also prospered in the reigns of James I and Charles I. James appointed him Lord President of Munster in 1607 and in 1604 contrived to reverse the Coroner’s verdict of 1594, which implicated him in the murder of Henry Long. James also made him a lord in 1603.

In 1626 Charlkes I made him the 1st Earl of Danby and in 1628 made him a member of the Privy Council. Various other commissions followed.

Henry Danvers died in 1644 at his house at Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire. He never married and had no issue so the Barony of Danvers and the Earldom of Danby died with him. Nevertheless he lived for 761 years, a long life in the 17th century.

His brother and accomplice in the murder of Henry Long was less fortunate. He was an active participant in the Essex rebellion and was executed in 1601.Also les fortunate were the Danvers servants who particiupoated in the affray. While the two brothers were making their successful escape these followers were rounded up, summarily tried and hanged.

2. A.L. Rowse (1965) Shakespeare’s Southampton: Patron of Virginia. Macmillasn. p. 102.