Saxon Earls of Southampton included Osric, who defeated a Danish army in 860, Aelfegus, who was Earl during the reign of King Edgar and Alfelme, who was Earl at the time of Canute.
William Fitzwilliam, son of a Yorkshire knight, was elevated to the peerage as the Earl of Southampton in 1537 during the reign of Henry VIII. He died in 1542.
Sir Thomas Wriothesley (pronounced Risley) was the first Earl of Southampton with that family name (image 1). He was born in 1505, the eldest son of William Writh (he later adopted the surname Wriothesley). By 1523 he refers to Thomas Cromwell as his master and, being an avid religious reformer, had managed to ingratiate himself with Henry VIII. He was particularly helpful to the king in his matrimonial struggles. He profited greatly from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, acquiring extensive property in Hampshire, including land formerly belonging to the Abbeys of Quarr, Hyde and Beaulieu. He was knighted in 1540, and in 1541 was made Governor of Southampton Castle. He was created Baron Wriothesley of Titchfield in 1544. His considerable prestige can be gauged by the fact that it was he who announced the death of the king to parliament in 1547, and that, by the king’s will, he was appointed one of Henry’s executors and joint protector of Henry’s son and heir, Edward VI. He was created Earl of Southampton in that year. In later life he was accused of illegal acts, deprived of his offices and placed under house arrest. He died at his house in Holborn in 1550.
Henry Wriothesley, the only surviving son of Thomas Wriothesley, became the Second Earl of Southampton of that name on the death of his father in 1550 at the age of five. His Catholic sympathies (he married the Catholic Mary Brown, daughter of Viscount Montagu, in 1565) led him into plots against Queen Elizabeth, and was eventually incarcerated in the Tower. He died in 1581 aged 37.
His son Henry Wriothesley (image 2), born in 1573, succeeded to the title in 1581. Literature was the chief interest of his life and from an early age he had a reputation as a patron of poets and writers. Shakespeare dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The rape of Lucrese (1594) to him. It has also been argued, albeit inconclusively, that Shakespeare’s sonnets were addressed to him. In 1595 Southampton began a liaison with Elizabeth Vernon, one of the queen's waiting women, which culminated in their hasty marriage in 1598, incurring the queen's wrath and leading to their brief imprisonment in the Fleet Prison. It has been suggested that this love affair provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Although raised as a Catholic, Southampton became a staunch supporter of the Protestant cause and in 1624 he and his eldest son James led a military expedition to the Low Countries in defence of German Protestants. Both father and son died of fever in the early days of the expedition. Their remains were transported back to England and were buried at Titchfield.
Thomas Wriothesley, born in 1607, became the fourth earl in 1624 after the death of his father and elder brother. He inherited substantial property, including properties in Titchfield, Bugle Hall in Southampton and Southampton House in Holborn. He was very close to Charles I and became one of his chief advisors. He was present during the king’s trial and visited him in prison before his execution. He attended the funeral in February 1849 and afterwards retired to Titchfield. On the restoration, Charles II appointed him Lord High Treasurer, which office he held until his death in 1667.
He was buried at Titchfield. He married three times but had no male heir and so the earldom became extinct.
The title was re-created in 1670 for Barbara Palmer, mistress of Charles II. She was made Baroness Nonsuch and Duchess of Cleveland at the same time. The title thereafter was bound up with the Dukedom of Cleveland.

1. Thomas Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton

Image Unavailable

Portrait by unknown artist

2. Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton

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Portrait attributed to John de Critz the Elder, c.1603


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