The Writings of Charles Wisner Barrell 19

The Wayward Water-Bearer Who Wrote
“Shakespeare’s” Sonnet 109

Copyright 1945 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, July 1945.

[NOTE: Critical information in this article has been superseded with more recent scholarship that shows no evidence exists Oxford held the Office of the Ewery. See Nina Green’s Oxmyths.]

In a previous chapter (1) I have given reasons for believing that Sonnet 109 was written by the poet Earl of Oxford in the spring of 1581 to his unfortunate mistress Anne Vavasor when this dark-faired, dark-eyed young Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth was sent to the Tower for unexpectedly giving birth to a son by Oxford in the Maidens’ Chamber at Greenwich Palace.

It will be recalled that Oxford himself was not among those present on this dramatic occasion, and was thought by Sir Francis Walsingham, Principal Secretary of State, and others “to have withdrawn himself with intent to pass the seas.”

Be that as it may, the Earl was either quickly apprehended or gave himself up to the Virgin Monarch’s authority and was also sentenced to enjoy the grim hospitality of the state prison for having, like the leading male character of Measure for Measure, “got his friend with child.”

Thus, both the poet and his Dark Lady appear to have been inmates of the commodious Tower at the same time. But we can take it for granted that the jealous Queen—who had herself long displayed a marked personal interest in Oxford—saw to it that her erring favorite was given no opportunity to console his unhappy mistress or offer first-hand excuses for his absence during the torturing midnight hours of Anne Vavasor’s disgrace and banishment. If Oxford communicated with her at this time, it would have been by means of a written message. And as a versifier whose technical skill is categorically attested by his contemporaries, what more natural than his use of the highly personalized poetical form, of which Sonnet 109 is a striking example, to express remorse and beg forgiveness for his apparent “false of heart … absence” when the great reckoning took place in the Maiden’s Chamber?

O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seem’d my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love: if I have rang’d,
Like him that travels, I return again:
Just to the time, not with the time exchang’d,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe, though in my nature reign’d
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stain’d,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my Rose; in it thou art my all.

The whole spirit of this poem most assuredly echoes the tragic circumstances in which the titled poet and his mistress were enmeshed to their scandalous undoing in the March of 1581.

The unhallowed man child—later to become the handsome and heroic Lt.-Col. Sir Edward Vere, M. P., of the Lowland Wars—although illegitimate, was nevertheless Oxford’s true creation. The fact that the Earl never publicly acknowledged him does not prove that Oxford did not view the boy with paternal affection. Much documentary evidence will be presented at another time to show how, on the contrary, Edward de Vere the poet-dramatist went to great pains to keep this fair and courageous namesake who, even as an adolescent subaltern in the service of Sir Francis Vere, shed lustre on the family name, from being branded as a “bastard” by the busy tongues of London. All of these circumstances are referred to many times in the heart-stirring measures of the Sonnets. So when “Gentle Master William” here avows,

As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:

it may well be that he is personifying the infant as his “soul.” Years later, when addressing the more mature youth in Sonnet 74, he uses a similar figure of speech:

Thy spirit is mine, the better part of me.

It seems almost needless to point out again that no reference that the author of Sonnet 109 makes to himself has ever been applied with any realistic force whatever to the known personal career of the Stratford native. A wayward aristocrat certainly speaks in such lines as:

Never believe, though in my nature reign’d
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stain’d,
To leave for nothing all thy sun of good.

For, everything else aside, no true artist would make such a personal allusion unless “blood” and high social position were genuinely susceptible of being “‘stain’d” by the delinquencies charged. It would be not only ridiculous but an unpardonable breach of creative taste for William of Stratford—an authentic son of the yeomanry who is said to have been forced into a “shot-gun” marriage with a farmer’s daughter, eight years his senior—suddenly to begin lamenting that he was subject to the “frailties” of the lower orders. No. Here again the Stratford identification is untenable. The author of the Sonnets is too great an artist to indulge in so obviously cheap a solecism. He continually expresses himself as a genius of truly aristocratic background naturally would, incidentally admitting many personal faults. But rank insincerity and snobbish pretence are not among them in asking us to assume such breaches of taste and common sense the accepted authorities demand the impossible. We must look for the writer of these revealing lines among the Elizabethan poets of outstanding contemporary reputation who actually had jeopardized “blood” and high social position by certain well-defined patterns of emotional irregularity and creative activity. In doing this, let us ignore conjectural possibilities and stick as closely as possible to personal documentation. This immediately narrows the field to one man—the same poet-playwright Earl of Oxford whose documentation can always be shown to fit the Bard’s most searching self-commentaries. In fact, it is not too much to say that all references which “Shakespeare” makes to himself, and which are admittedly blank enigmas as applied to the Stratford native, immediately assume clarity and heightened artistic meaning when read in the light of Oxford’s personal record.

One very interesting self-description that has, I believe, escaped previous notice, appears in the eighth line of Sonnet 109:

So that myself bring water for my stain.

To the casual reader this may appear as a mere figure of speech, rather on the commonplace side; the kind of thing that almost any poet who has broken the Seventh Commandment might say in expressing remorse. But we are not dealing here with “almost any poet.” We are dealing with the outstanding master of English literature, a Lord of Language who uses commonplace words so effectually (as he himself reminds us in Sonnet 76) “that every word doth almost tell my name.”

So when we examine more closely “Shakespeare’s” reference to himself as a water-bearer, we suddenly discover that it fits the poet Earl with almost breath-taking realism. And this for the simple reason that Lord Oxford was the official water-bearer at Elizabeth’s Court.

This fact is amply certified by Dr. J. Horace Round, foremost authority on the law and precedent relating to British peerage and pedigree, who was retained by both the House of Lords and the Crown to settle many important questions in this field. Dr. Round tells us that in addition to the office of Lord Great Chamberlain of England, the 17th Earl of Oxford also held an office known as “the Ewrie” which is described as distinct from the Great Chamberlainship. (2)

The most important duty of the Officer of the Ewrie during the Shakespearean Age was “to serve the monarch with water before and after eating on the day of the Coronation.” It must be noted that this service of water was primarily for cleansing purposes, and that the “ewer, basins and towels” were among the essential furniture of the office, as well as “tasting cups.”

As Lord Great Chamberlain and also Officer of the Ewrie, Oxford is known to have personally served James I upon the day of his Coronation in 1603. (3)

But the record of Queen Elizabeth’s Annual Expence: Civil and Military, published by the Society of Antiquarians of London (1790), shows that “the Ewrie” was a continuously active Court office employing a “Sergeant,” three “Yeomen,” two “Groomes,” two “Pages” and two “Clarks.” This quite evidently means that while Oxford held the honor of the office of providing water for the Queen’s use in freshing up at table and wiping away the “stains” of her repast, he himself only functioned in this capacity upon great state occasions, such as a Coronation.

So that myself bring water for my stain

is not, therefore, merely a commonplace figure of speech, but a direct, colorful self-identification of Edward de Vere as the author of Sonnet 109.

And although it may be demonstrated that these verses are addressed to some woman other than Oxford’s unhappy Dark Lady—even to the Queen herself—the unmistakable voice of the wayward Officer of the Elizabethan Ewrie still rings just as clearly on the informed ear.

The emblem of “the Eivrie” (also seemingly unnoted by the many keen scholars who have discussed Lord Oxford’s strange career) was a silver water-bottle laced with Oxford Blue cord. An ancient drawing of this badge from the Retrospective Review (1828) is reproduced herewith. The writer of the accompanying description has mistakenly attributed the device to the office of “Lord High Chamberlain.”


“Shake-speare” makes another pointed reference to Oxford’s long-forgotten office of water-bearer when in that stark and cynical autobiographical drama of a spendthrift nobleman (Timon of Athens, III.1) he has one of Lord Timon’s followers remark:

I dreamt of a silver basin and ewer tonight.

Coincidences—COINCIDENCES! What a plague they have become to accepted Shakespearean authority! Always negative in reaction to the furtive Stratford citizen. But invariably positive in respect to the poet-peer who bore the nickname of “Gentle Master William!”


1. NEWS-LETTER. Vol. III, No. 3.

2. Round: Report on the Lord Great Chamberlainship; MS. in the Library of the House of Lords, London.

3. Ward: Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, p. 346.