James Wilmot
James Wilmot was an English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 clergyman and scholar from Warwickshire
Warwickshire is a landlocked non-metropolitan county in the West Midlands region of England. The county town is Warwick, although the largest town is Nuneaton. The county is famous for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare...

. During his lifetime, he was apparently unknown beyond his immediate circle.

After Wilmot's death, his niece, Olivia Serres
Olivia Serres
Olivia Serres , known as Olive, was a British painter and writer. She is also known as an English impostor, who claimed the title of Princess Olive of Cumberland, born at Warwick.-Origins and Early Career:...

, claimed that he was the pseudonymous author of the famous Letters of Junius and an influential friend of major writers and politicians. She later also claimed that he had been secretly married to a Polish princess, fathering a daughter by her who had married into the British royal family. Serres asserted that she was the child of this marriage and therefore deserved the title "Princess Olivia".

Furthermore, a document discovered in the early twentieth century appeared to demonstrate that Wilmot had been the earliest proponent of the Baconian theory
Baconian theory
The Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship holds that Sir Francis Bacon, lawyer, philosopher, essayist and scientist, wrote the plays conventionally attributed to William Shakespeare, and that the historical Shakespeare was merely a front to shield the identity of Bacon, who could not take...

, the view that Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England...

 was the author of Shakespeare's works.

All posthumous claims about Wilmot have been disputed. Olivia Serres was a notorious impostor and forger. The manuscript concerning Shakespeare has no known provenance and was probably concocted during the early twentieth century.


James Wilmot studied at Trinity College, Oxford
Trinity College, Oxford
The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the University of Oxford, of the foundation of Sir Thomas Pope , or Trinity College for short, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England. It stands on Broad Street, next door to Balliol College and Blackwells bookshop,...

, where he received a Doctorate of Divinity
Doctor of Divinity
Doctor of Divinity is an advanced academic degree in divinity. Historically, it identified one who had been licensed by a university to teach Christian theology or related religious subjects....

, and of which he became a Fellow. He was appointed to a curacy at Kenilworth
Kenilworth is a town in central Warwickshire, England. In 2001 the town had a population of 22,582 . It is situated south of Coventry, north of Warwick and northwest of London....

 and later promoted to the position of rector of Barton-on-the-Heath
Barton-on-the-Heath is a village and civil parish in the Stratford-on-Avon district of Warwickshire, England. According to the 2001 census the parish had a population of 85. The village is in the extreme south of Warwickshire, close to the borders with Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire...

, fifteen miles from Stratford-upon-Avon
Stratford-upon-Avon is a market town and civil parish in south Warwickshire, England. It lies on the River Avon, south east of Birmingham and south west of Warwick. It is the largest and most populous town of the District of Stratford-on-Avon, which uses the term "on" to indicate that it covers...

, where he remained for the rest of his life and served as a Justice of the Peace
Justice of the Peace
A justice of the peace is a puisne judicial officer elected or appointed by means of a commission to keep the peace. Depending on the jurisdiction, they might dispense summary justice or merely deal with local administrative applications in common law jurisdictions...


Supposed Shakespeare research

Wilmot's Shakespeare research is said to have been reported in two lectures to the Ipswich Philosophic Society in 1805 by his friend, James Corton Cowell, preserved in a two-part manuscript, "Some reflections on the life of William Shakespeare". The lectures, contained in a "thin quarto volume", were donated to the University of London
University of London
-20th century:Shortly after 6 Burlington Gardens was vacated, the University went through a period of rapid expansion. Bedford College, Royal Holloway and the London School of Economics all joined in 1900, Regent's Park College, which had affiliated in 1841 became an official divinity school of the...

 in 1929 by the widow of the prominent Baconian
Baconian theory
The Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship holds that Sir Francis Bacon, lawyer, philosopher, essayist and scientist, wrote the plays conventionally attributed to William Shakespeare, and that the historical Shakespeare was merely a front to shield the identity of Bacon, who could not take...

 Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence
Edwin Durning-Lawrence
Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, 1st Baronet was a British lawyer and Member of Parliament.He is best known for his advocacy of the Baconian theory of Shakespeare authorship, which asserts that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare's plays. He published a number of books on the subject and...

 (1837–1914) and first made public in 1932. They tell of Wilmot's search for Shakespeare's books or records in country manor libraries within a radius of 50 miles (80.5 km) of Stratford. According to the "Reflections", by 1781, Wilmot had concluded that Shakespeare could not have authored the works attributed to him and that Sir Francis Bacon had. Nevertheless, concerned that his views might not be taken seriously, Wilmot destroyed all evidence of his theory, confiding his findings only to Cowell.

The authenticity of Cowell's "Reflections" was accepted by Shakespearean scholars for many years. It was even suggested that Wilmot may have written the published pamphlet, The Story of the Learned Pig (1786), which was claimed to hint at a Baconian argument. However, the authenticity of the Cowell manuscript was challenged in 2002-2003 by John Rollett, Daniel Wright and Alan H. Nelson. Rollett could find no historical traces of either Cowell, the Ipswich Philosophic Society, or its supposed president, Arthur Cobbold. Reporting on Rollett's findings, Wright suggested that a Bacon supporter might have forged the manuscript and added it to Durning-Lawrence's archives to revive Bacon's flagging popularity in the face of the Earl of Oxford
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was an Elizabethan courtier, playwright, lyric poet, sportsman and patron of the arts, and is currently the most popular alternative candidate proposed for the authorship of Shakespeare's works....

's ascendancy as the most popular alternative Shakespeare author in the 1920s. However, Wright stopped short of declaring the manuscript a forgery, pending paleographic analysis of the handwriting and dating of the paper. In 2010, James S. Shapiro
James S. Shapiro
James S. Shapiro is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University who specialises in Shakespeare and the Early Modern period...

 declared the document a forgery based on facts stated in the text about Shakespeare that were not discovered or publicised until decades after the purported date of composition. Peter Bower, an expert in paper history analysis, identified the paper as drawing paper, not writing paper, probably made shortly after the type was introduced in the mid-1790s. He noted that he knew of no instances of that type of paper being used to write out a long lecture.

Serres biography

Wilmot's biography was written in 1813 by his niece Olivia Serres
Olivia Serres
Olivia Serres , known as Olive, was a British painter and writer. She is also known as an English impostor, who claimed the title of Princess Olive of Cumberland, born at Warwick.-Origins and Early Career:...

, who had lived with her bachelor uncle as a child. Serres claimed that Wilmot himself was a pseudonymous author, having written the Letters of Junius, well-known Whig political tracts which defended democratic rights and freedom of speech, whose authorship had been much debated. Serres also asserted that Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson , often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

 admired Wilmot to such a degree that he "submitted his writings to the perusal of Dr Wilmot before their going to the press", and that he was close to the poet laureate Thomas Warton
Thomas Warton
Thomas Warton was an English literary historian, critic, and poet. From 1785 to 1790 he was the Poet Laureate of England...

, with whom he exchanged poems. Serres also said that Wilmot knew the novelist Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne was an Irish novelist and an Anglican clergyman. He is best known for his novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy; but he also published many sermons, wrote memoirs, and was involved in local politics...

 and influenced leading liberal political figures including John Wilkes
John Wilkes
John Wilkes was an English radical, journalist and politician.He was first elected Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives...

 and Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke PC was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party....


According to Serres, Wilmot fell out with Burke over his treatment of Wilkes, and when Burke demanded that Wilmot burn all their correspondence, Wilmot scrupulously complied. Indeed Wilmot was so concerned to preserve confidences and his own anonymity that he burned all his papers just before his death, leaving no evidence of his literary and scholarly achievements. Despite this, Serres claimed to have later discovered papers written in "cyphers", which she destroyed, except for one book that contained memoranda proving "beyond contradiction" that Wilmot was Junius.

Serres did not mention any interest that Wilmot may have had in Shakespeare. Rather she asserted that Wilmot's favourite poet was John Milton
John Milton
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell...

 and that he also admired Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope was an 18th-century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson...

 and John Dryden
John Dryden
John Dryden was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden.Walter Scott called him "Glorious John." He was made Poet...

. Serres did state that Wilmot was a great admirer of Bacon, writing that "Lord Bacon's works were placed by our author [Wilmot] in his niece's hands at a very early age and he desired her to read his essays very frequently. The editor [Serres] has often imagined from many circumstances that her venerated uncle greatly resembled Lord Bacon in person and mind".

Alleged marriage

In 1817 Olivia Serres concocted an elaborate story to prove that she had royal ancestry. According to Serres, Wilmot had secretly married Princess Poniatowski, sister of King Stanislaus I of Poland, and thus Wilmot was actually her grandfather rather than her uncle. Wilmot had fathered a daughter, Olive, and had officiated at her secret marriage to Prince Henry, the Duke of Cumberland in 1767 at the London house of a nobleman. Serres produced a document signed by James Wilmot asserting that he had conducted this marriage.

Serres stated that she was the only child of this marriage and that her mother had died "of a broken heart" on the Duke of Cumberland's "second" and "bigamous" marriage to Lady Anne Horton. Serres managed to enlist the support of a Member of Parliament, and the issue was debated in the House of Commons, but her claims were dismissed. The documents produced by Serres were determined to be forgeries, and evidence was provided that Wilmot was in Oxford, as a Fellow of his college, at the time he was supposed to have conducted the marriage and signed the document. The Poniatowski family declared that none of King Stanislaus's sisters had ever been to England. Nevertheless, Serres daughter, Lavinia Ryves
Lavinia Ryves
Lavinia Jannetta Horton Ryves, née Lavinia Serres , was a British woman claiming to be a member of the British royal family, calling herself "Princess Lavinia of Cumberland"....

, continued to assert royal descent.
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