The Marian Crown in Oxford’s Signature


This post explores the idea that the glyph surmounting Oxford’s “Crown Signature” was a stylized Marian Mark, now commonly known as a Witch Mark, and that these apotropaic symbols which Elizabethans often carved near windows, doorways and fireplaces for purposes of ritual protection were carried over into the literature of the day in religiously conformist, Roman Catholic and satirical subtexts. I will examine crowned Marian representations and the possibility that Oxford’s sigil was a Marian Mark transmuted into a crown. Though as Anti-Stratfordian scholar Diana Price asserted Oxford’s symbol most evidently resembled an Earl’s coronet, in a covert context it would indeed signify a royal crown and in a sense, by her co-option of the Virgin Virginum symbol of the Marian Queen of Heaven, the protection of Queen Elizabeth. I will argue that Oxford’s use of this mark was particularly Shakespearean, putting the inherent anamorphism of this sigil and its multilayered associations to work for his own unfolding purposes. Though I am not Catholic, I will attempt to demonstrate how neglect of the Catholic side of Oxford’s mixed religious background can lead to missed clues in the authorship question.

It was a symbol forged in the midst of crisis. With his kinsman the 4th Duke of Norfolk locked in the Tower for plans to wed the dethroned Mary Queen of Scots and the northern shires stirred to revolt over “evil disposed counselors” surrounding Queen Elizabeth, the 19 year old Earl of Oxford included a mysterious symbol in the letter he penned to Elizabeth’s chief administrator William Cecil on November 24 1569. The first royal ward of an officially childless and unmarried Queen, Edward de Vere had been lodged in the house of Cecil, then Lord Treasurer, since the age of 12. Oxford’s guardian was the first of the courtly cabal that the rebels intended to overthrow on their way to restoring the power of the old nobility and the Roman Catholic religion in England.

The 17th Earl of Oxford was heir to one of the oldest extant noble titles in England. His sympathies lay with his cousin Norfolk. Though his heart was torn in this test of fealty, Oxford chose loyalty to his Queen above all. Requesting permission to help put down the rebellion for the “service of my prince and country”, Edward Oxenford, as he referred to himself, would include that enigmatic symbol in letters to the Cecils for the next 34 years, then abruptly lay those flourishes to rest with the burial of his sovereign “prince”, Queen Elizabeth, in 1603.

The paraphs above and below his name have generated much debate. Though Oxfordians believe that the cross bar with seven slashes under his name represented the number 17, Oxfraud has argued that the Earl of Oxford would not have considered himself to be the 17th to hold that title in succession even if the court did maintain ordinal counts of noble title holders in those days, which he asserts they did not.[1]

The figure floating above his signature has been seen as a royal crown, symbolizing the Earl’s aspirations to kingship, however Diana Price established that this stylized mark most closely resembles an earl’s coronet, not a royal crown.[2]


Ironically the skeptical reading may just invert the original Oxfordian conception. Oxfraud says that the seven slashes on a cross bar did not represent his title but the crowning sigil did. Even if we accept the crown sigil as an Earl’s coronet, the paraph of seven slashes may relate to a belief that as the first foster son of an officially unmarried and childless Queen he might one day be heir to the crown, the prophesied King Edward the Seventh that legend said would be the salvation of England, an idea I explored in the post “To Claim a Kingdom”.

The fact that Norfolk’s father Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was executed by Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII at least in part for his “usurpation of royal arms” made it unlikely that Oxford would overtly represent a royal crown in his signature, never mind while Surrey’s son was locked up in the Tower of London for aspirations to marry a royal. Yet Oxford’s insistence on using this signature for decades only to abandon the affectation after the funeral of Elizabeth suggests that there was a deeper signification and one perhaps intrinsic to his relationship with the Queen. While the Edward VII prophecies could account for the mystery of why he adopted and later abandoned this particular signature, I would like to explore the possibility that the crown that surmounted his signature was a stylized form of Marian Mark, that it did in a covert sense represent a royal crown and that Oxford employed this sigil in a distinctly Shakespearean manner.

What is a Marian Mark?


Photo credit Karen Tomlin

While carvings in this pic from a graffiti hunt at Lyvedon in Northamptonshire were more recent than the 16th and 17th centuries, they also contain Witch Marks or ritual protective symbols that were popular in Tudor/Jacobian times. As the National Trust explains, “Witch marks, or apotropaic (protective) marks, can be found in England in buildings from the medieval period onwards, with a peak of activity between the 15th to early 18th centuries.” Such is the staying power of the “Witch Mark” that it happens to be part of the blockquote font for this blog.


The same is not true for its inverse which managed to avoid getting a reputation for witchcraft, though involved in magic.


In Shakespeare’s time the letters U and V were largely interchangeable and whether the overlapping double Vs formed a W (double U) or appeared upside down as the letter M, they are the same symbol and more accurately described as Marian Marks. Rather than being known as a Witch Mark back then, those overlapping Vs stood for Virgo Virginum or Virgin of Virgins. Inverted it became an M symbolizing Maria or Mary.

Here are more examples from the Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey website.


Both orientations can be found among ritual marks of protection that were usually scored near doors, windows and fireplaces, but have also been found in attics, caverns, cupboards under stairs, on the sides of church benches and in the porticoes of chapels where women were sanctified in rechurching ceremonies before they were allowed to rejoin worship services after childbirth.

As the National Trust site explains: “The peak of their use corresponds to a time of great religious change in England, with the decline of Catholicism and the rise of Protestantism. The old rituals of the Catholic Church were being lost and there was an underlying fear of witchcraft.”

Saying “the decline of Catholicism” is a genteel whitewashing of the outlawing and suppression of the Roman Catholic religion in England, a slow rolling juggernaut of royally mandated change that was accompanied in Queen Elizabeth’s time by social persecution, raids, arrests, fines, loss of preferment, the seizure of assets and in extreme cases torture and death. Regina Gloriana’s reign was also a glorious period of cultural and scientific advancement, including the brilliant flowering of the literary and dramatic arts in the English language and ocean explorations that would bear fruit in the new world under James I, her successor. It is only by marrying the dark and light of her reign together that we can take the necessary “two-eyed” view that will allow us to measure whether “that’s true too” and this is also necessary when dealing with Oxford, the leading alternative candidate for authorship of the works of William Shakespeare.

To assess whether Oxford was using a stylized form of Marian Mark in his signature it is necessary to explore how those religious changes affected first, Oxford and secondly, perceptions of that symbol. To do this we must, as well as we can, stand – as he did – in “the broken middle” to adapt a term that Gillian Rose coined and which Isobel Armstrong in The Radical Aesthetic understood as “the point of contradiction, where opposites fail to transform one another”, where “intellectual struggle is at its most perilous and stressful, and where a painful restructuring of relationships comes about at the site of the middle…” This is as important in understanding Oxford’s position as it is in appreciating the Shakespearean plays. To omit the religious war of their day is like telling half truths or covering one eye when looking at their world.

Oxford’s Position in “The Broken Middle”

Roman Catholicism had reclaimed the island nation that Elizabeth Tudor inherited from her sister Mary. With three changes of monarch and national religion in a dozen years, Elizabeth tried to heal the traumatic wounds of a divided nation with a moderately reformist church that avoided the extreme Reformation and Counter Reformation of preceding reigns. Yet as an unmarried woman who proclaimed herself to be the head of a Protestant national church, once more casting the rule of Rome and its Pope from England, she would be near deified and demonized. Following the Northern Rising and a Papal Bull absolving anyone wishing to depose that “pretended”, “heretic” and most emphatically excommunicated Queen of England, Elizabeth’s reign became the grounds of an escalating holy war.

Two years later the Ridolfi Plot to free Mary Queen of Scots and place her on the English throne with Spanish military assistance led to the trial and beheading of a never certainly complicit Norfolk, and Oxford set aside his new bride, Anne Cecil, in a fury at her father, by then created as the Baron Burghley and promoted to Lord Treasurer. Only later would Burghley learn that the Earl had tried to hire Martin Frobisher to pilot a ship called the Grace of God to help Norfolk escape his fate, a plan perhaps abandoned when the Berney-Mather Plot to assassinate Cecil and free the imprisoned couple, a scheme infiltrated by and very possibly instigated by Cecil’s spy William Herle, led to the passage of stricter laws through Parliament, including one that made it a treasonous act to assist in the escape of anyone arrested for treason.

While remaining a favorite of the Queen, Oxford’s young adult years were filled with mutinies large and small against his wife, in-laws and courtly society. Yet when it became known that he secretly sailed to the mainland without crown permission in 1574 spurring fears that he was joining the ranks of English Catholics overseas, Burghley (a keen collector of overseas intelligence) coached a fellow councilor to tell Elizabeth “that this young nobleman, being of such quality as he is for birth, office and other notable valours of body and spirit” and also for “his singular loyalty” (italic stress mine) should “not be discomforted either by any extraordinary delay or sharp reproof.”

A fine poetic dedication to a translation of Cardanus Comforte appeared in print when Oxford was 22 and approximately two dozen of his privately circulated early poems and song lyrics would find their way to publication in his lifetime. In his 30s he would sponsor acting troupes and prominent writers, even briefly holding the lease to the theater at Blackfriars which he granted to his secretary, the playwright John Lyly. Several times he would be cited as the foremost of hidden courtier poets and playwrights. It was all rather outre’ for an Earl but his double life went deeper than penning plays. The horizon expanding sojourn in Europe that the Queen had allowed him in 1576, exposure to foreign courts and their noble arts, fluency in Latin, Italian and French and wide reading unconstrained to his own time or isle, along with his broadminded tolerance and idealism, finally added up to what the Queen and Burghley long feared as the figurehead that was their first noble foster son tracked further and further off course. Never mind the literary frivolities, upon his return from Europe Oxford had become a secret Catholic convert.

By 1579 England’s young ceremonial Lord Great Chamberlain was at the height of his influence, joining Burghley and the Lord Chamberlain of the Queen’s household, the Earl of Sussex in promoting a possible marriage between Elizabeth and the French Roman Catholic Duke of Alencon. With Leicester, the Queen’s long time favorite, briefly eclipsed at court, the pro-match group, which included a number of covert and not so covert Catholics, improbably appeared to be winning.

Yet in the next year the French Match was all but dashed after a Spanish fleet arrived to combat the English in Ireland and two Jesuit priests, Edmund Campion and Robert Persons, invaded England. With lines of loyalty once again underscored, the 30 year old Earl of Oxford wept openly before the throne as he publicly gave up the old faith and turned in his cousin, the late Duke of Norfolk’s brother Henry Howard, Howard’s cousin Charles Arundel and Francis Southwell for Catholicism with intimations of a deeper running disloyalty. While suspicious he may not have known that Arundel was a member of a radicalized secret society blessed by the Pope. The secret Catholic Courtier group would provide logistical support for the English Jesuit Mission and conspirators for a succession of plots to assassinate Elizabeth.

Burghley had called the charismatic Oxford University scholar Campion a “diamond of England” but that was before his religious conversion. Returning as a Jesuit to reignite the English Counter Reformation in 1580, he was captured in the next year. Eloquent enough in a debate with divines of the Church of England for his arguments to convert the late Norfolk’s son Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, who would die in the Tower and be sainted for the cause of religion, Campion was still able to mount a passionate defense at his trial though he could no longer page through a bible with his fingers crippled and stripped of their nails. His fate was the usual one faced by traitors, which a priest in England then was by definition of law. The sentence for treason was to be hung, cut down alive, dragged briefly behind a horse, then entrails ripped out, heart removed, head cut off, body quartered and the parts strung up for public display.

Though all three professed loyalty to the crown, the 3rd Lord Vaux, his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Tresham (the man on whose land the Marian Marks displayed at the top of this page were discovered) and Tresham’s brother-in-law Sir William Catesby were convicted for harboring Campion. It was believed to be on Catesby’s property that the name of William Shakspere’s father was placed on a handwritten Testament of Faith that Campion was distributing in the fall of 1580 (John Shakspere had never learned to sign his name).

Another brother-in-law of Tresham and Catesby, Sir Ralph Sheldon, was also arrested. Like Oxford he publicly renounced the Catholic faith. Not only would relations in a thicket near the line of Sheldon’s sister engage in significant business transactions with William Shakspere (like selling him King’s Place and a half share of the tithes in Stratford-upon-Avon), Sheldon’s daughter would marry Francis Trentham in 1591, the same year Trentham’s sister Elizabeth married the widower Earl of Oxford. Yet Sheldon secretly remained a Catholic, unlike his daughter’s future noble brother-in-law.

In 1583, two years after the turmoil of these arrests and Campion’s death, another brother-in-law, Sir Edward Arden, was executed after his son-in-law John Somerville was picked up while armed and apparently on his way to kill the Queen. Arden was a distant cousin of William Shakspere, but his son-in-law Somerville was from Edstone, the town north of Wilmcote where Shakspere’s mother Mary Arden was raised and two towns above Stratford-upon-Avon. When Justice of the Peace Lucy was documented as harassing local Ardens after the plot, it was Shakspere’s close relations he was targeting.

Even as Somerville was intercepted, the Queen’s spymasters were monitoring the development of the Throckmorton Plot, a scheme to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots by way of a Spanish invasion. This plot was led by Oxford’s (and the Queen’s) estranged cousin Henry Howard and Francis Throckmorton, a 1st cousin of the Throckmorton wives of Tresham, Catesby, Sheldon and Arden. Oxford  would be partly vindicated when Henry Howard was arrested as one of the leaders of the plot, Spanish Ambassador Mendoza was deported and Charles Arundel forced to flee overseas (Throckmorton, another member of the secret society,  went the way of Campion and Arden).

As an example of interconnectivity between all these lines, Father Hugh Hall, the priest harbored by Arden who was said to have incited Somerville, had been sheltered in the past by:

  • Sir John Throckmorton, former VP in the Marches of Wales and Francis Throckmorton’s father
  • Sir Ralph Sheldon, father of Oxford’s future sister-in-law
  • The 3rdLord Windsor, Oxford’s Catholic brother-in-law, married to his half-sister Catherine.
  • Sir Christopher Hatton, a Catholic leaning Privy Councillor allied with the Queen’s protestant paramour, the Lord Leicester.

It was during Hall’s employment with Hatton that Stratfordian scholar Richard Wilson believes that the priest may have been “turned” based in part on Camden’s report that Sir Edward Arden was pursued due to a grudge held by Leicester and in part for the rather miraculous fact that Father Hall was condemned to death with Sir Arden but was subsequently freed.[3]

This brief glimpse should serve as an introduction to the idea that Shakspere and Oxford shared a network of connections that was more religiously mixed and more deeply affected by the turmoil of their day than is typically credited. This was also true of Oxford’s younger Cecil House “foster brothers” the Earls of Essex and Southampton who had their own links to this family. Southampton’s maternal uncle Henry Brown was a son-in-law of Sir William Catesby while Sir Edward Arden’s other son-in-law was Sir Edward Devereaux (later made the 1st Baron Bromwich), a great uncle of Essex though only eighteen years older since he was born as a last, late in life son to Essex’s great grandfather, the 1st Lord Hereford.

Other prominent figures had closer family connections to these lines:

  • The Dowager Countess of Rutland and Bedford (aunt of the Throckmorton wives of Catesby, Tresham and possibly Arden, step aunt of Sheldon’s wife)
  • Sir John Harington, Queen Elizabeth’s saucy godson (1st cousin of Anthony Babington and of a close daughter-in-law of Sir Ralph Sheldon, a man he would bravely defend in the Metamorphosis of Ajax)
  • The literary Beaumont brothers (1st cousins of the Jesuit sheltering Vaux sisters born of the 3rd Lord Vaux’s first marriage.)
  • King’s Men writer John Fletcher (his mother a 1st cousin of the Throckmorton wives of Sheldon, Arden, Catesby and Tresham)
  • MP Job Throckmorton, believed to be responsible for the Martin Mar-prelate tracts (1st cousin of the Throckmorton wives of Sheldon, Arden, Tresham and Catesby
  • Oxford’s friend Arthur Throckmorton and Arthur’s sister “Bess”, wife of Sir Walter Raleigh (1st cousins of the Throckmorton wives of Sheldon, Arden, Tresham and Catesby)
  • Oxford’s friend George Gifford (1st cousin of the Throckmorton wives of Sheldon, Arden, Catesby and Tresham.

They all shared relations who had become casualties of the Elizabethan religious war, a war of attrition that saw recusants of gentle class increasingly strained and isolated, their homes subject to the violent and structurally damaging raids of pursuivants, their lives interrupted by occasional arrests and after release constrained to a five mile radius from their homes, incomes undermined through blackmail, the requisite bribes, loss of preferment and reduced opportunities for advancement through marriage, university, knighthood, military service or patronage. In addition fines for recusants eventually reached 20 pounds per month and 1/3 of assets could be confiscated in the event of nonpayment.

These were the relationships that they avoided drawing attention to for the most part, though once in a while the truth would out, as when Sir John Harington bravely slipped a defense of Sir Ralph Sheldon into the Metamorphosis of Ajax or someone noticed letters written by the hard pressed recusant Lady Vaux from King’s Place where she had evidently found shelter with Oxford and his wife.

However this is just the beginning of fascinating connections between this extended family network and Shakspere, Southampton, Essex and Oxford. The Trentham marriages and the deaths of Leicester and Hatton paved the way for new alliances in 1591. Oxford found himself drawing closer to Southampton and through his wife into proximity with a family he had not been associated with for a decade. It is a subject that can only be touched on here but in the decade of the 90s no plots roared out the center of the midlands recusant community which had grown as a whole more cautious as the vise winched tighter, but perhaps were also given a measure of hope by the alliance of Earls challenging Cecil.

To make just a few points out of dozens, it was not a coincidence that Sir Arden was taken into custody at the London home of the underage Earl of Southampton back in 1583. It was likely due to this shared network that the name William Shakespeare was chosen as a pen name for daring poems in the first half of the 90s and for the publication of plays that undermined Cecil’s faction in the latter half of the decade. It was also no coincidence when in 1601, after the previous day’s showing of Shakespeare’s Hereford hyping Richard II, the former Cecil House wards Essex, Southampton, Rutland and Bedford thundered off with the intent of mounting a rebellion against the councilors surrounding Elizabeth and especially their former foster brother Robert Cecil, nor that among the future Gunpowder Plotters Sir William Catesby’s son Robert was in the pack of horsemen and Sir Thomas Tresham’s son Francis, employed as an usher at Essex House, was left guarding the crown officers that they had imprisoned. It was an exaggeration but a telling one that among the most vehement accusations at the opening arguments of the Earls’ trial was the insistance that Tresham had become, like Essex’s Catholic father-in-law and another supporter, one of the Earl’s “chiefest councilors.”

The truth was Essex’s star had been falling with Elizabeth from 1597. This was the year that Essex and the Bacon brothers sponsored the bold venture of ex-Jesuit Father Wright who believed that if he landed in England professing absolute loyalty to the Queen he could advance the cause of religious toleration. It was an unforgiveable challenge to an administration that insisted that priests were imprisoned and sometimes tortured or executed for their disloyalty, not for religion. The tactic meant a delay before they could find an excuse to throw the priest in jail (where it is believed he converted Ben Jonson). By the time of the 1601 rebellion, a case had been prepared and stayed to charge Essex with plotting with the Pope and Spain backed by testimony from the imprisoned Father Wright and as a last straw Southampton was viciously attacked in the street and his young page’s arm cut off by a gang led by Cecil’s then ally the Baron Grey of Wilton who then spent at most a few weeks and possibly only days in jail for the crime.

It is not possible to estimate how many supported “liberty of conscience”, as they called it, because religious conformity was required by law and sympathizers had to be as circumspect as those who were breaking the law, but there is good evidence that Essex, Southampton and Oxford did support tolerance for loyal English Catholics and an end to the Machiavellian depredations of Elizabeth’s top aides. Though Oxford and Essex may have disagreed on tactics, both were closely allied to and protective of the youngest of the Cecil House wards, Southampton, as were his peers Rutland and Bedford. They all straddled two worlds, and had to try to reconcile those conflicting realities there in the tension filled space of the broken middle, but for Oxford, the eldest, the only one who confessed to Catholicism and the only one who married a Cecil, and for Southampton who came from a devoutly Catholic family the pressures were perhaps the most intense.

A Marian Haunted World

With this background knowledge we might look at the profusion of double Vs littering Elizabethan literature as something more than a quirk of the printers of the day for VV did not just stand for “double U” when it was encountered in a book any more than the Virgin Virginum discovered on a fireplace or near a door. The meanings of symbols can remain stable for long periods of time but are also at any point fluid and subject to change. What shades of meaning did this quintessentially Roman Catholic symbol take on in the reign of the protestant Elizabeth?

Consider that some Marian Marks wore crowns. Tim Easton who is an authority on ritual protective marks, notes, “The M and W are therefore seen to be interchangeable on timber, though a crown is sometimes added to the Virgo Virginum mark, emphasizing Mary’s role as Queen of Heaven.”

He adds, “At Carmel Priory, Cumbria, one of the 16th century misericords has two crowned Ws on each side of the stall rest. Although the guidebook suggests that these could be the initials of a prior, the presence of two elaborate crowns makes this unlikely (Rothwell, 1997). Painted, crowned Ws are also repeated many times on the restored early 16th century pulpit in Fotheringhay church in Northamptonshire.”

It was in nearby Fotheringhay Castle that Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded as a consequence of the 1586 Babington Plot. The Babington conspirators overlapped with the exorcism ring led by then head of the English Jesuits Father Weston which partially operated out of the Vaux home in Hackney. Anthony Babington was a friend of the Vaux family and a 1st cousin of the wife of Ralph Sheldon’s heir. It was at the 3rd Lord Vaux’s house in Hackney that Babington’s servant was exorcised by priests that included Father Ballard who recruited him for the plot. Walsingham’s double agent who betrayed the Babington conspirators was Gilbert Gifford, another cousin of the Throckmorton sisters who married Tresham, Catesby, Arden and Sheldon.

It must be noted that Oxford’s final house, King’s Place, had an ingenious double hide on the first floor that led up to the eaves in the attic, believed to almost certainly have been built by the master Catholic hide builder and Jesuit layman Nicholas Owen and this is the basis for historians’ belief that this estate was the Hackney home of the Vaux family in the 80s, the very place where Jesuit exorcists turned out Flibbertigibbet and other demons that would receive a mention in King Lear. This supposition is strengthened by the fact that there were few other grand estates in the area and the widowed Lady Vaux later stayed at the home for a period after the Countess of Oxford purchased the place and moved there with her husband.

The Vaux family was the very pillar of Jesuit support in the country, enduring despite decades of pressure and punitive measures from the crown. Men like the Lord Vaux and his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Tresham, known as the English Moses for decades of lobbying for religious toleration for Catholics, were figures for whom Oxford could feel much empathy. The 3rd Lord Vaux died a broken man, after years of imprisonment, crippling fines and travel restrictions, despite the financial management and devoted support of Sir Tresham. Even as the widowed recusant Lady Vaux stayed as a guest at King’s Place, the Baron’s daughters Anne and Eleanor and a daughter-in-law Eliza continued to hide, support and transport prominent English Jesuits, in this capacity their only peer the widow of Oxford’s martyred cousin, the Earl of Arundel.

As naturally as crowned Marian Marks must have resonated during the reign of Elizabeth’s sister Mary I, for English Catholic recusants who rejected worship in the reformed Church of England crowned Marian symbols may have taken on an association with the Scots Queen before and after her martyrdom. Given the potency of this symbolism it is perhaps surprising that such marks were ignored by officials during Elizabeth’s time in power. Church interiors were once again whitewashed and stripped of Catholic ornament in her reign but Marian Marks were evidently not suppressed. As Easton notes, “As many timber frames can be dated fairly accurately using dendrochronology, it is now possible to prove that the scribed monograms continuing to use the Marian symbol are mainly found in buildings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. By the early 18th century the circular patterns, which were also used in the earlier period, had become the most commonly used scribed marks averting evil. Nevertheless, it is a fact that none of the many-recorded Marian symbols that the author has observed have been defaced, even though statues of the Virgin Mary were broken or removed during the Commonwealth period, if not before. At the time many painted images of saints, and their names on church screens, were scratched across or painted over.”

In conclusion he asserts that “the range of the Ms and Ws found in different parts of Britain demonstrates that the sight of a mark of protection, added to a doorway in the 16th or 17th century, would be readily understood even if its original meaning from before the Reformation had shifted…In vernacular Suffolk houses, marked doorways and stairs leading to attic voids, that were not used frequently other than for storage were often given apotropaic marks, or had objects secreted nearby, as were cupboards under stairs. Perhaps a dark space, like a cave that had to be passed by, might have been viewed in the past as a suitable hiding place for a malevolent force. Bats might have taken residence in the cave and, as James Ist’s Daemonologie states, these could have been viewed as witches’ familiars particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Yet attic voids and cupboards under staircases were often turned into hideaways for sheltering priests or stowing mass items and other religious contraband, and this contingency may well have spurred householders and hide-builders to employ Marian marks for additional protection. The reality of the religious conflict of their day and the dangers facing covert Catholics and their priests once again may provide a missing contextual key.

Since Marian Marks were scribed throughout the Tudor and Jacobian reigns, Tim Easton wondered, “Were these markings continued by craftsmen out of habit who forgot their original meanings, and if the meaning was still apparent why weren’t these marks defaced?”

Perhaps it was for the same reason that Oxford could scrawl what might be seen as a variant of a crowned Marian mark in his own signature. We cannot know whether Oxford truly gave up the old religion or whether like Sir Ralph Sheldon, he only appeared to conform. Neither can we be entirely certain that he did not return to the practice of Catholicism in his final years. Raised in the staunchly reformist household of Lord Burghley since he was 12 years old, possessor of a well-studied and frequently marked Geneva bible but by evidence of a few annotations also familiar with the contraband Roman Catholic Douai Bible according to Professor Roger Stritmatter, he may well have taken to heart precepts and practices from both religions. What we do know is that he was a man who was inclined to broadminded tolerance, a fact supported by numerous testimonies through his life. Yet as Oxfordians have recognized the Earl was devoted, at times it seemed obsessively, even if somewhat discontentedly, to his Queen and the crown mark may also be seen as a symbol of this commitment.

From the first days of her reign, Elizabeth cultivated a cult of worship among her subjects. If she could not convert English Catholics, she could make it easier for them to remain under that canopy by co-opting and redefining those symbolisms and traditions that were too woven into the fabric of English life to eradicate. She would become the Virgin Queen, associating herself with the Queen of Heaven along with Venus, Diana and all of the other goddesses. “Tonight she shall be queen of heaven,” wept Thomas Cranmer after her mother Anne Boleyn was executed over dubious charges of incest and adultery. Elizabeth I would assume that role, anointing herself as the Queen of Heaven and incorporating her many symbolisms.

This would also be the reason for the continued tolerance of Virgin Virginium marks in churches, for the VVs strewn in the pages of publications in her reign, and for the possible stylized representation of that protection symbol in Oxford’s letters to the Cecils. Elizabeth had no need to eradicate Marian Marks because the crown had co-opted that symbolism. While I am still researching the theory that Marian Marks survived because they became associated with the cult of Elizabeth, the assimilation may have been as subtle as the Virgin Virginum Mark blossoming on her dress in printer Richard Daye’s 1578 Book of Prayers.




Arguing against the idea that Oxford’s Crown Sigil was a Marian Mark is the consideration that the early modern Marian Mark crowns in England that I have seen depicted royal crowns, not the ball tipped spires of an Earl.



The images I found that most closely resemble Oxford’s conception are the crowns perched atop modern versions of the Marian Mark. MarianProtectionMarkcrown

Yet if the crown in question is meant to represent a Marian Crown we can dismiss Oxfraud’s objection that it is “Undoubtedly an earl’s coronet: it’s spiky, knopped with ‘pearls.’ A royal crown, in heraldry, is squashy, like a bun.” (n19)

Marian crowns were not always depicted as “squashy, like a bun” as the above examples show. Additionally in the galleries of Europe, and particularly in Italy there existed a great number of works depicting the Coronation of the Virgin and among them an array of crowns. As an example Guilio Romano painted the Coronation of the Virgin in the convent of Monteluce near Perugia. Oxford would not have seen this particular painting but I will use a detailed view of Romano’s work as an example only because this Italian artist later became a court painter for Frederico Gonzaga of Mantua where Oxford in a later period almost certainly encountered examples of his work. Not so coincidentally Guilio Romano was given high praise in The Winter’s Tale, the only painter that Shakespeare ever named (and the Stratford man never visited Italy). In Romano’s painting The Coronation of the Virgin the crown is not a squashed bun.


In the following detailed view of the Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Lippi the Virgin is given a gossamer crown. Oxford may possibly have viewed this painting in his travels, though not soon enough to inspire the mark, but it is included as another instance of a “spiky” Marian crown.


Another crowned Virgin by Fra Lippi. Watch out for those spikes, Jesus.


Finally the Virgin was often “crowned” with stars to represent her role as Queen of Heaven. Traditionally this is depicted as a dozen stars encircling her head. Yet in iconography stars were often depicted as concentric circles. The only crowning of the Virgin I have so far found with circles on the crown was the Ghent Altarpiece, created in 1432. Note the circles (representing stars) above the crown symbolizing her position as the Queen of Heaven and then consider the bored holes that crowned the points in the Lyvedon marks at the beginning of this post and two others in the Suffolk Graffiti Survey collage.



If the correlation is not exact it does establish a range of crowned Marian depictions at the time, some of which were spiky or ball tipped, at least in Europe. It would be easier to imagine Oxford making the leap if he toured Paris, Strasbourg, Padua, Venice, Florence, Sienna, Lyons. Venice, and Milan when he was 19. However we don’t know whether he made unauthorized trips over the channel in his late teens, nor do we know what depictions of the Virgin’s coronation were available in England. The Virgin Mary was also depicted with variously styled crowns in illuminated manuscripts and in Jesse Trees displaying the genealogy of Jesus that were popular in England.

It is also possible that his crown mark was inspired by observing bore holes on the four points of classical Virgin Virginum Marks and the royal style crown on other examples. Four in German was vier which was a play on de Vere, as Oxfordian W.J. Ray has observed of Oxford’s penchant for making various puns and puzzles of his name. Playing with the idea, he may simply have transformed the Virgin Virginum with its four bored holes into a stylized crown tipped with four points.

Yet rather than spires, the signature crown is actually a zigzag. As this excerpt from Linda Hall’s Period House Fixtures and Fittings (2005) details, “Rows of zigzags have been carved onto the stone fireplace” in figure B. She noted that it “is not clear if they are meant to be Vs, Ws or Saltire Crosses; the ambiguity may be deliberate.” In fact an X or a mishmash of lines was often used for purposes of protection.



Note in figure A the Saltire Cross with dots in the vertices, identical to the Alchemical Spirit of Vinegar symbol that someone marked beside Oxford’s name in the parish death register but we’ll leave that for another post.

The most carefully drawn of Oxford’s Crown marks was clearly a zigzag, appearing as vvv.


This too may have had its own meaning to Oxford, perhaps playing off of his motto Vero Nihil Verius or Nothing Truer than Truth. VVV could easily be turned into Vero Vere Verius or whatever Latin combination would read along the lines of Vere, truest Truth or Vere, Truly True. Additionally he could have added one of his own Vs to the Virgin Virginum, turning that monogram into a sly True Virgin of Virgins. Yet whether Oxford’s mark appeared as a chain of contiguous Vs, or in other cases more like an M or a W, the ambiguity was intentional.

Additionally it may be a stretch to jump from apotropaic markings to the paraph attached to a signature. Yet it would make sense that the flourishes appended to signatures may in times and places have served as ritual marks of protection. After all signatures, like the poppets ill-wishers fashioned to put pins through, represented people. Unlike poppets, a signature actually had legal standing as a proof of identity and as a representation of an individual. If an apotropaic mark could proffer protection near a doorway or window why not lend such ritual protection to one’s signature?


Cross hatchings and continuous closed loops were commonly used to ensnare evil energies, working on the same principals as dream catchers that are meant to entangle the spirits causing bad dreams. Consider, for instance, the mark of ritual protection found under a Marian symbol in Lichfield, pictured above. This apotropaic mark used cross hatches and closed loops in a way that is faintly reminiscent of a paraph appended to the signature of the 13th Earl of Oxford.


Let’s look at the paraphs in Oxford’s signature again.



What impresses me most about Oxford’s Crown symbol is its shifting anamorphism, that quicksilver versatility so in keeping with Oxfordian belief that Edward de Vere was the brilliant mind behind the Shakespearean works. It is and is not what it seems. Appearing at first as a stylized Earl’s coronet, it just as clearly is not a classical Marian symbol nor one that is crowned. It is a Marian Mark transmuted into a crown. Watch as the symbol transforms into a contiguous VV or Virgin Virginum mark, similar to the double Vs the printers used but with a serif at the end, then into a W (for Will?) and finally into an M (mistress, mother, Marian Queen of Heaven) before perception begins cycling around again.

Secondly, note the attempt Oxford made to enclose his name within those paraphs, the cross hatching, the closed loops, the zigzags and the sealing off of open spaces. This is clearly, to me, an effort at self-protection using apotropaic principles and probably not unconscious. It is interesting that he never completely closed this construction. There was always a gap or two, but never fear because that Marian Mark was never far from the entryway. Below is a comparison of ornate signatures of the period (collected by Christopher Paul to prove that Oxford’s signature was no more embellished than his peers)[5] and it must be noted that these signatures also display the characteristics of ritual protection. Like Oxford’s signature, these two samples leave a gap or two and employ a mixture of loops and cross hatchings.sigcomparison

Though the third construction belongs to a Cambridge official, added to loops, bows and crosses are two SS markings (similar to the elongated S in contemporary books of the period). SS had long stood for Sanctus Spiritus or the Holy Spirit. That 3rd signature may just be summoning the protection of the Holy Ghost. If the Marian symbol was reformed by its association with Elizabeth as Queen of Heaven, what became of the Holy Spirit? Besides further research needed regarding apotropaic features in signatures and evolving perceptions of the Virgin Virginum it would be interesting to explore how the Sanctus Spiritus was regarded in the Elizabethan period.

Now consider what Elizabethan letters are used in a way that seems strange or funny to us today. Besides the i and j, that would be the v and u, as well as “double u” and the long s. Imagine the subversive fun one might have with Ws made of Vs and those elongated S markings. The dedication page of Venus and Adonis reads very differently once you’re looking suspiciously at double vees:

Southampton dedication

Double Vees and Long Esses were not always used cryptically, but their common use and Elizabeth’s appropriation of the Virgin Virginum mark meant that they could be used subversively without alerting the censors.

Line 13-16: … I leave it to your honou-

rable suruey, and your Honor to your hearts content, vvhich I wiSh

 may alvvaies anSvvere your ovvne vviSh, and the vvorlds hope-

ful expectation. 

Now there’s a well wishing friend, cramming my wish, your wish and the world’s wishes (hopeful expectation) into one line. What is it that one wishes on? It’s a built in riddle and you might say “a star” but the answer is a well. The ridiculous sentence was meant to make you wonder about all the redundant wishing and then make the leap to well wishing. In 1609 the dedication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets made sure to “wisheth the well-wishing adventurer” and “only begetter” of those sonnets “all happiness and that eternity promised” by their “ever-living poet”. Besides suggesting that the poet was by then deceased and harkening back to the V&A dedication to the Earl of Southampton, now most commonly suspected to be the adored “Fair Youth” of the sonnets, this well-wishing might remind us that in that superstitious period Marian Marks were just one of many forms of ritual protection.

Consider the late 15th century artifact known as the Coventry Ring for its place of discovery. This gold ring, now at the British Museum, was inscribed on the inner surface with magic words like Tetragrammaton, and on the outside by Christ standing in a tomb with the Cross accompanied by the Five Wounds of Christ, the latter an important Counter Reformation theme. In this case, each wound was represented by a pictorial glyph and associated text: “The well of pitty, the well of merci, the well of confort, the well of gracy, the well of ewerlastingh lyffe.”


Faced with widespread roving protest marches, collectively known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, during which Catholics walked barefoot, linked arms and sang hymns while bearing the banner of the Five Wounds, Henry VIII’s response had been to redouble his resolve to take over the monasteries, fill in the popular holy wells dedicated to saints and to kill untold numbers. By Elizabeth’s time the only difference between the curative waters of spas such as the popular resort at Bath and the remaining medieval holy wells was that the wells were associated with saints and shunned by Protestants. That mention of a “well-wishing adventurer” in the dedication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (supplying the answer to the implied riddle of that line in the V&A dedication) points toward the religious contexts lurking under the surface gloss of Elizabethan literature.

Yet that covert Catholic riddle may smack more of rebellious dissidence than religious reverence. All of those ‘Virgin of Virgins’ marks in the V&A dedication were in and of themselves a joke anyway. Venus was one of the Goddesses whose symbolism Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, had appropriated. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis described a sexually voracious Goddess pursuing a reluctant young Adonis. In this case we must imagine that the VV marks were not intended to be read as protective Marian Marks nor as devout Catholic signaling and certainly none of this smacked of the kind of respect due a sovereign from a subject. This was bold tongue-in-cheek satire under the newborn pen name William Shakespeare. If you’re a Stratfordian it was Shakspere making light of the Queen’s reputation. If Oxford was the author the context is that the oldest royal ward and one-time Catholic who grew up at Cecil House was writing this irreverence for the youngest of the noble wards who grew up at Cecil House, the first to be raised as a conformist in a devoutly Catholic family. It does not mean either man was then a converted Catholic, but it does reference their shared religious background.

In the V&A dedication it becomes evident that the double vees are not as random as they appear when you divide the line into two instead of three.

Line 13-16: … I leave it to your honourable suruey, and your Honor to your hearts content,

vvhich I wiSh may alvvaies anSvvere your ovvne vviSh, and the vvorlds hopeful expectation.

Noting that the word answer appears as ansvvere in that last line, it seems more likely that Edward de Vere arranged the profusion of double Vs at the end as cover for the insertion of his name. Thus the author of the V&A Southampton dedication is Vere and he by implication becomes the Ever-Living author referenced in the Sonnet dedication. Oxford takes advantage of the double Vs to encode his name in the dedication of The Rape of Lucrece as well and wishes “long life still lengthned” and “all happiness”, sentiments also echoed in the Sonnet dedication.



As the authors of the Sonnet dedication recognized Vere in proximity to wishes and the name William Shakespeare was also a signature.

venus adonis dedication small


To insure that readers picked up on what he was laying down Thomas Thorpe included allusions to both of Shakespeare’s dedications to Southampton.


As evidence that the double V of the printers could also symbolize the Virgin Virginum, consider the quartos of King Lear. The title page of the quarto published by Nathaniel Butter in 1608 used a classical Marian Mark for the W in William and a hyphen between Shak and Spear (respectively a capital S and a long S). When framing a counterfeit of that 1608 Lear Quarto in 1619, William Jaggard and Thomas Pavier substituted the double V for the Marion Mark (and changed Shak to Shake).

Lear Collage

Both emphasized HIS, as if to insist that M. William Shak-speare (or Shake-speare) really did write the work, honest. Printed all in caps and in headline type on its own line that insistent HIS would seem to suggest that there was an authorship question this early on, but I believe the word is printed in capitals because it is an anagram. Derived from Jesus’s name in Greek and known as the Holy Name of Jesus or simply The Holy Name, IHS was a popular monogram in the Roman Church even before it became the centerpiece of the emblem adopted by the Jesuits, founded in 1540.Jesuitemblem

Note that this says nothing about the private religious views of the, in 1608, late Earl of Oxford or William Shakspere who except for one documented transaction seems to vanish from London after 1604, the year of Oxford’s death. Yet in regard to the publisher Butter, it must be noted that a 16th century recusant browsing in his book shop in St. Paul’s Churchyard would have been highly alert to the religious subtext.

M. William Shak-Speare:


Crowding an M. (initial for Mary), classical Virgin Virginum symbol, anagram of the Holy name that was associated with the Jesuits and maybe even the Holy Ghost (S-S) in headline type in the top lines of the title page adds up to some heavy crypto-Catholic signaling, nevermind that he seemed to be equating Shakspere with Jesuits for those who had the eyes to see it.

Reading this message just as clearly as I described it, when confronted with that classical Marian Mark the counterfeiters Jaggard and Pavier reached for what they saw as its equivalent: two capital Vs. After all that’s what a Marian Mark was, two overlapping double Vs in upright or reverse orientation. They then corrected Shakspeare to Shakespeare, changing the spelling of the name but not the hint of association with the Society of Jesus.

In this light it really is no wonder that successive Lords Chamberlain, Thomas Howard and then the Earl of Pembroke, suppressed quarto publications of Shakespeare’s plays and that Pembroke, with his brother the Earl of Montgomery, a son-in-law of Oxford, later oversaw the publication of the definitive First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays.

The symbolism of the W and double S may be another reason why the pen name William Shakespeare resonated for Oxford. Further study is necessary but capital Ws were often written ambiguously in that period and could even resemble the letter M. William Shakspere signed his name with just that kind of ambiguous W. That particular “funny W” is common enough that we cannot say Shakspere’s was merely due to poor fine motor control and insecure letter formation. Perhaps it was just the fashion at the time but it could also have been an attempt to cryptocode religious sentiments in his own signature.


For Elizabeth it must have seemed like a Mary haunted world, all the more reason for the appropriation of the Virgin’s trappings, restrictions on printing and crack-downs on recusants.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown

Prospero-like, Oxford was aware of the power of words and symbols yet there may have been a more practical reason to employ that Marian Crown sigil. His troubled marriage to Anne Cecil, his setting aside of that daughter of the Queen’s top counselor, the outrageous counter accusations he faced known as the Howard-Arundel libels, Oxford’s arrest for fathering an illegitimate son with their cousin Anne Vavasour, and his Montague and Capulet style street battles with her Knyvett kinsmen devastated his reputation. He was known for his poetry and as a comedic playwright which for many Protestants were also pursuits of ill repute. Bouts of riotous and bohemian living did not inspire admiration and the exhaustion of his fortune further damaged his credit and standing in society. We can also speculate that Shake-speare’s Hereford hyping, Cecil bashing Richard II being used to drum up support for the Essex Rebellion was the final coup de gras for Oxford’s standing with the administration. It may be that Oxford also included that signature in letters he sent to the Queen. If Elizabeth was aware of its significance, that was all the more reason for its long continuance. She would mark the absence of his sign of devotion the minute it disappeared.

Oxford had made dangerous “frenemies”. Henry Howard, a cousin of the Queen whose death he once plotted, would make his way back into favor at court after melting away from the side of Essex, his position helped along by his nephew Thomas Howard, a favorite of the Queen, as well as through alliance with Oxford’s resentful brother-in-law Robert Cecil. The Howards’ kinsman Sir Thomas Knyvett, who had injured Oxford in a street battle, was rising fast on the coattails of this faction that would scale the heights of power in the court of James. Though you would never know it from the flowery courtesy of Oxford’s letters to Robert Cecil, these men would never be counted as his friends.

The paraph in Oxford’s signature served as a reminder to William Cecil, later to Robert and possibly to others (we don’t know as only the Cecil letters survived) that he was, first and foremost, an Earl and should be accorded the dignity and respect due to the holder of the oldest surviving and therefore highest ranked title of nobility in the country. Yet I believe it was also a ritualistic restatement of his loyalty and devotion to England’s crowned Virgin Virginum. As often as Oxford had been frustrated and disillusioned by her policies and as acerbically as she came to view her first foster son, he would position himself under her authority and protection every time he scribed that glyph with his pen. Whether that symbol alternatively or at the same time represented the Virgin Mary, we can never know. Yet the man who could blend the skeptic, the pagan, the reformist and the old religion in his heart probably had room for both Queens, the humanly fallible English monarch and sublime Marian Queen of Heaven. His loyalty to the crown was not blindly given, but a considered, strenuous and ongoing reconciliation. That lifelong practice of drawing conflicting views into the same frame in an effort to negotiate a resolution between opposing points of view and arrive at a closer approximation of truth was the crucible in which the Shakespearean works (and the Marian crown signature) were forged. Those plays, like that symbol, could speak to and enlighten both sides.

Regardless of his own “religious settlement”, Oxford knew many Catholics, including the musician William Byrd who composed the famous Earl of Oxford’s March, a measure for the Earl of Essex and a pavane for Robert Cecil. At the same time Byrd was arranging mass music for the English Jesuit priests, the same men harbored by the Vaux family, so those works could be sung by only a few voices in covert services. The religious war of their day forced them all to lead dual lives, the Roman Catholics, the Puritans, the atheists, and anyone who sympathized with their plight.

That Oxford’s “Crown Signature” contained a stylized and anamorphic Marian Crown, and that it was constructed according to apotropaic principles is a theory that bears further consideration. For the Earl of Oxford who lost his fortune, tarnished his name and made enemies of men who would rise to prominence in Elizabeth’s closing years and beyond, all protection lay in the powers of the crown and his sovereign’s continued good will.

In 1603 Elizabeth died and Oxford wrote a letter to Robert Cecil expressing his “great grief to remember the mistress which we have lost”, noting that “In this common shipwreck mine is above all the rest, who least regarded though often comforted of all her followers she hath left to try my fortune among the alterations of time and chance, either without sail whereby to take advantage of any prosperous gale or with anchor to ride till the storm be overpast.” Having granted him a 1000 pound annuity to shore up a spent fortune, Elizabeth was just as resolute in her refusal to grant him a penny more, but his grief for the Queen and trepidation for the future were genuine. Having laid the Marian Crown to rest after the death of the Virgin Queen, for the 15 months that remained of his life the Earl would send his signature, often just a plain “E. Oxenford”, out into the world with the simple flourish of a knot underneath his name or shorn of protective markings altogether.

To the question of why Oxford abandoned ritual marks of protection in his signature after the ascension of James, we might look to Daemonolgie, the Scots King’s 1599 treatise on the subject of witchcraft, which was published in England in 1603. James observed of charms that “many honest & merrie men & women have publicklie practized some of them, that I thinke if ye would accuse them al of Witch-craft, ye would affirme more nor ye will be believed in.” While not exactly leading to damnation, James believed that those who played with charms and spells and potions were potentially courting darker forces. Oxford perhaps thought it best to dispense with the apotropaic markings in his signature, although he could have used the protection more than ever.

A couple of days before the Queen died, the Earl of Lincoln accused Oxford of plotting against the ascension of James I. Oxford’s daughter Bridget was married to Lincoln’s stepson, but the Lord Norrys had a difficult relationship with his stepfather, once asking his cousin Lord Grey of Wilton to contact Cecil for help when Lincoln was holding his mother under house arrest. It is significant that when James was declared King at Whitehall Palace by Cecil the only nobles who missed signing the declaration without an apparent reason were Oxford and Norrys and Oxford shortly after complained in a letter to Cecil of summons not being sent or in one case concerning a meeting at Whitehall arriving an hour after he was supposed to be in attendance.

Since James was still meandering south from Scotland, Lincoln’s son Thomas Clinton rode north with a letter accusing Oxford of treasonous plotting against the King’s ascension to the English throne. It is unknown if Thomas Clinton’s brother-in-law Lord Thomas Howard, Howard’s uncle Lord Henry Howard or Cecil, their ally in handling the affairs of the country during the succession, were aware of this serious accusation against their kinsman although they likely were informed. Later Robert Cecil would require Sir James Peyton, Lieutenant of the Tower during the changeover, to explain in writing why he had not followed up on Lincoln’s reports of Oxford’s treasonous speech. Peyton explained that when he realized “what great person it was whom he meant”, he knew Oxford “to be so weak in body, in friends, in ability and all other means to raise any combustion in the state.” Yet the King, by evidence of his favor, made room under the royal canopy for the older man he called “Great Oxford”, clearly forgiving the offense.


“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own, —

Which is most faint: now, ‘tis true,

I must be here confined by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got,

And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands:

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails.

Which was to please: now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so, that it assaults

Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

  • The Tempest, Epilogue 1-20



[2] Price, Diana, Rough Winds do Shake: A Fresh Look at the Tudor Rose Theory,, pp. 14-16

[3] Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare, pp. 105-114

[4] C.J. Binding, L.J. Wilson, Tim Easton, Ritual Protection Marks in Goatchurch Cavern, Burrington Combe, North Somerset (Binding and Wilson) with an Appendix on the Use of Conjoined Vs to Protect a Dwelling (Easton): See pp. 129-130 for crowned Marian symbols

[5] Christopher Paul’s review of Beauclerk’s Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom in Brief Chronicles Vol. II (2010), 252.Oxford’s signature from letter to Robert Cecil, Oct. 7, 1601 (CP 88/101); Ron Halley signing himself owner of Barnabe Riche’s 1604 A Soldier’s Wish (STC 21000, sig. A4v); King’s College, Cambridge official Matthew Stokys, signed ‘Mattheus Stokys, No[ta]rius pub[li]cus[is],’ Oct. 2, 1583 (Lansdowne 39/6).



22 thoughts on “The Marian Crown in Oxford’s Signature

  1. Fascinating subject although you have me a little bewildered here: when you say “cross hatchings and continuous closed loops were commonly used to ensnare evil energies”, is this your own research please, if so where has it been drawn from? If these are the thoughts of someone else, have you verified their sources, references – what are they? Then you say “working on the same principals as dream catchers”, but which principles please? As far as I am aware the ‘dream catcher’ is a cultural artefact from Plains Indian culture, are you knowledgeable on Plains Indians and if so which tribe or tribes? The peoples who became Native American Indians split from their Eurasian cousins in prehistory, so I would find the cultural transmission of ‘dream catcher principles’ – whatever these are – from North America back through Eurasia and Siberia to northern Europe remarkable. Is this what you are proposing please? Fascinating stuff, thank you.

  2. I can see how the American Indian reference was confusing! To be clear I used the dream catcher as a general example since the “web” of a dream catcher (in my understanding) is meant to attract and entangle bad dreams. I’m sorry, I don’t have a reference for the part that said “continuous closed loops were commonly used to ensnare evil energies”. That was drawn from long interest in the subject but, like an article I once read on ritual protection markings in signatures, it’s information that I don’t have a source for now. It is easier to find references for the cross hatching, which are commonly associated with Marian Marks. You might enjoy the following:
    “Gunpowder Plot Witchmarks Found at Historic House in Kent” by James Pickford:

    I have further research on the VVV that I will post (with references).

    • Many thanks, I have also done a lot of research into these marks which are Marian in the Middle Ages and Tudor period. The symbolism is quite complex. Ian Fleming’s “007” number was inspired by the signature of one of Elizabeth I’s spies for example – the zeros standing for her vigilant eyes; the seven may be a Marian ‘V’ denoting the Virgin which then doubled as a reference to the ‘Virgin Queen’, a title Elizabeth did not eschew, despite its ‘popish’ associations. I will check out the book with thanks. I’m sure I’ve seen reference to dream catchers elsewhere in the current context. I don’t know the history of the dream catcher – apart from that it pertains to (late?) Plains Indian culture, but it can have little if any bearing on medieval graffiti I should have thought. A fascinating subject, thanks again 🙂

  3. Pingback: The VVV in Oxford’s Crown Signature | Six Degrees of Shakespeare

  4. Still waiting to hear from James. Here’s a book, ‘Averting Demons’ by Mellinkoff. This authority says demons disliked intricate designs which *frightened them away* as opposed to the designs ensnaring them. It looks to me as if some of the literature you have consulted may have been being creative with what is known for apotropaic marks, for who knows what reason. Webs don’t attract anything, they are traps for unwary insects who do not see them – webs are not lures. The earliest documented dream-catchers have been found amongst the indigenous Chipwe peoples of the North American, Great Lakes region. They have no possible bearing on Medieval through to Tudor apotropaic mark making in Britain.

    • I think we established that I was not claiming a connection between dream catchers and English apotropaic markings but was trying to use an example of the concept that the modern reader would have some exposure to and could easily understand. Some of the European apotropaic markings were meant to summon protection from evil spirits like the Marian marks, ward them off as in the x and cross hatch markings and yes, others presented a tangle or knot that would distract or confuse the evil spirit thereby preventing entry. The idea was that the evil spirit would get caught in a knot or closed loop rather than crossing the threshold. For instance there is such a reference in this article which is not academic but again, it is an accepted finding in the field:
      Thank you for the references. I’m on another project but will look this one up when I have more time.

      • “The idea was that the evil spirit would get caught in a knot or closed loop rather than crossing the threshold.” I disagree, firstly many of these designs are found indoors, beyond the threshold; secondly there is no documented instance for passively catching of spirits in this way. Compelling spirits is the work of an exorcist, priest or cunning folk, and that is an entirely separate consideration. And I will not accept the bald borrowing in of motifs from unrelated traditions, which is a false practise: colonial Europeans encountering Native American beliefs would have recoiled from them as works of the Devil, they would not have adopted them, on the contrary. Even if you are not saying they did you need to explain the cultural context to your reader who may otherwise come away with the wrong idea. Dream catchers have been exploited by the New Age for almost 50 years now, I’d rather not see that mindset imported into scholarship. Thank you.

        • “The idea was that the evil spirit would get caught in a knot or closed loop rather than crossing the threshold.” I disagree, firstly many of these designs are found indoors, beyond the threshold; secondly there is no documented instance for passively catching of spirits in this way. Compelling spirits is the work of an exorcist, priest or cunning folk, and that is an entirely separate consideration.”

          More information is always welcome. In the text I had written (emphasis added): “Both orientations can be found among ritual marks of protection that were usually scored near doors, windows and fireplaces, but have also been found in attics, caverns, cupboards under stairs, on the sides of church benches and in the porticoes of chapels.” In fact they have been found on the very beams that went into the building of a house. It was folk magic, used by people far and wide, by the builder of the house as well as its inhabitant, and NOT just by priests, exorcists and cunning women.
          However I just now added the word ‘often’ into the first paragraph for clarity.

          I’m also sorry that you take exception to the line which described the markings as “working on the same principals as dream catchers that are meant to entangle the spirits causing bad dreams.”

          From “Daisy wheels comprise a single, endless line which supposedly confused and entrapped evil spirits.”

          The understanding of scholars was that a spirit was compelled to follow a line to its conclusion and would be stymied when that line looped around, was cross cut or formed an endless circuit. The principle of trapping a spirit in loops, tangles or grids is similar in principle to catching a spirit in a web or net. In both the dream catcher and this form of apotropaic marking the spirit was thought to become helplessly entrapped. You seem to have become ‘caught’ in this yourself 😉

          “Even if you are not saying they did you need to explain the cultural context to your reader who may otherwise come away with the wrong idea.”

          Your objections to that line over the past 13 months have all been posted and remain on the page. This was one line in a very long blog post about one pre-colonial English man’s possible use of a Marian mark in his signature. It’s a blog post, not a dissertation.

        • It has been stated that Daisy Wheels comprise a ‘single endless line’, which is utter nonsense. They are composed of separate arcs, often using a compass or something similar. From “Daisy wheels comprise a single, endless line which supposedly confused and entrapped evil spirits.” I have criticised this statement to Historic England (whoever they are as individuals) and received a bland, anonymous ‘Customer Response’ reply, which presumably admits to ignorance over this matter without actually saying so?

          ‘The understanding of scholars’ – please refrain from generic references. Which scholars, who? Names, books, articles please. It is the past which is caught in a web of lazy scholarship and misinformation which I am intending to dispel by a process of inquiry. For example, there is little evidence to suggest a “spirit was thought to become helplessly entrapped” in a dream catcher, otherwise why suspend such a potentially dangerously charged object over a sleeping infant? How can anyone hinge a thesis on the Native American dream catcher without first studying it? The literature is out there, it just has to be patiently looked for.


    Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art & Architecture, Vol. V, issue 2, Autumn, 2015. Book Review: Matthew Champion,
    Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of
    England’s Churches (London, Ebury
    Press), 2015, 253 pages.
    By William Anderson, University of Melbourne

    “Geometric symbols identified as apotropaic, also known as ritual protection marks or “witch marks,” are among the most ubiquitous. Of these, compass-drawn, circular designs – the daisy wheel and hexfoil – are especially common. Their protective force works on the principle that evil spirits would be trapped within the shape’s “endless line.” The pentangle, a five-pointed star, is another motif that offered protection against evil spirits. Unusually, this symbol’s meaning is historically attested – in a digressive passage in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But other symbols remain enigmatic and their meaning was probably mutable in different historical and geographical settings. Especially prevalent is the “VV” motif, of which there are multitudes in Norfolk churches. Its connection with the Virgin Mary has been posited, but the sign’s continued use in postmedieval times and in situations with no apparent relationship to Marian worship, make this one possibility among many.”

    As you should understand by now my theory does not hinge on dream catchers in any way. That one quick line was used as an example of a concept that would already be familiar to the average reader. The point of the post was to question whether Oxford was creatively incorporating the symbolism of a Marian Mark into his signature. It also explored whether the elaborate designs of his and other Elizabethan signatures were constructed using apotropaic principles and whether the Marian symbol’s possible co-option by by Queen Elizabeth would account for his and indeed many Elizabethans’ continued open use of this symbol. The VVV post is a further exploration of that ambiguous symbol in his “crown signature”.

    • “Their protective force works on the principle that evil spirits would be trapped within the shape’s “endless line.”

      With respect, I have approached the author over this statement. At length he told me he had based it on what he had read in Ruth Mellinfoff’s book ‘Averting Demons’. However, when I consulted this book I discovered the following: “Tangled interlaces and tangled designs … were thought to cause concern among demons, who were supposed to dread confusion and indeterminacy … interlaces and knots … had the power to ward off evil”, page 164, vol 1, 2004. Also, the notion of trapping or luring something contradicts the meaning of the word ‘apotropaic’ which accords absolutely with Mellinkoff’s “to ward off evil”, rather like a shield. Indeed, the alluded to Gawain carries a shield decorated with a golden ‘endless knot’ or hexagram. Are we to picture Gawain’s shield seething with a multitude of invisible demons trapped within his heraldic device? I think not. A shield is used to repel, protect its bearer, and to ward off danger, it is appropriate therefore that Gawain’s shield is decorated with an apotropaic figure to deflect every and all manner of malignity. Thus I was and remain critical of Champion’s theories.

      • Errata.

        Ruth Mellinkoff was the author of ‘Averting Demons’(short title), 2004.

        Gawain’s shield is decorated with a pentagram not a hexagram as I incorrectly stated.

  6. Just to follow up on the Pentangle explanation in Gawaine since the medieval use of symbolism can be very different from our current conceptions:

    The narrator of Sir Gawain is very clear about what the pentangle (five-pointed star) on Gawain’s shield represents:

    It is a symbol that Solomon designed long ago
    As an emblem of fidelity, and justly so;
    Therefore it suits this knight and his shining arms,
    For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
    Gawain was reputed as virtuous,
    (625-626; 631-633)

    These five ways in which Gawain is virtuous are in the dexterity of his five fingers, the perfection of his five senses, his devotion to the five wounds of Christ, his reflection on the five joys of Mary in Christ and, finally, five virtues: generosity, fellowship, chastity, courtesy, and charity.

  7. Good, the ‘symbol of Solomon’ has never been definitively identified, to some it is a six pointed star, to others five; to still others it has a different appearance. The Gawain poet also identifies “the five joys of Mary” with it, as you say, thus identifying the pentangle or pentagram as a Marian motif. You forgot to mention that a portrait of the Virgin Mary decorated the inside of Gawain’s shield, golden star on the outside, Virgin Mary on the inside, facing the knight.

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