Ralph Sheldon of Beoley
1537 - 1613
Ralph Sheldon was a wealthy landowner of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, a man historically known for commissioning the magnificent Sheldon Tapestries. In accordance with this new Authorship theory, rather than fully pursuing his father’s dream of English tapestry works, Sheldon found himself involved in a new style of English stage drama.
Sheldon the writer, was further inspired by his trip to Italy in 1556 (at age 18) in the entourage of Edward Courtenay (the Catholic heir to the English throne and one-time suitor to the Protestant Princess Elizabeth). In accordance with this hypothesis, Sheldon anonymously produced his first play around 1560, the earliest version of Romeo & Juliet.
Sheldon quickly caught the eye of the Queen’s impresario Robert Dudley (in 1564, Earl of Leicester), but Sheldon’s potentially treasonous Catholic faith posed significant peril to both Leicester and the Queen. In 1566 Leicester demanded a 60-year lease for Sheldon at a residence at Oriel College, Oxford, thus exiling Sheldon to the rural countryside for safety reasons.
The new residency began with a drama by the Court playwright Richard Edwardes in honor of the Queen’s first formal visit to Oxford. Edwardes died suddenly shortly thereafter, and Sheldon was positioned to fill that void. He chose to do so anonymously and was left forever, to repurpose his own phrase, a ‘Hydden Man.’
Sheldon can be definitively tied to anonymous Shakespeare ‘source-plays’ in the 1570s, during the prime period for the acting company, Leicester’s Men. In the 1590s, Sheldon emerged as a leader of the movement for ‘new poetry,’ a radical revision originally ignited by Sir Philip Sidney (Leicester’s nephew). Sheldon edited the first anthology of the new poetry, filled with works of primarily Oxford-elite poets.
In the absence of any printed works credited to ‘Ralph Sheldon,’ it is mysterious indeed that the noted antiquarian Thomas Habington declared Sheldon’s ‘penne’ to be of ‘preeminent’ rank. Sheldon’s own biography furnishes the basic attributes of the Shakespeare prototype: Warwickshire roots, legal training (Middle Temple), he raised hawks and had nine daughters, all of whom married. He died in 1613, near the time of the last production of the plays, and he had an imperative reason for a pseudonym.
There are numerous arcane source materials, especially those related to his Italian trip, his interests in silkworms (for his family's tapestry production), and the legal works of his brother-in-law Edmund Plowden that warrant the need for a closer look at this candidate.