John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship: an interview with Andy Kesson

Lyly coverLast week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce and I urge anyone who is interested in the period to read it.

Born in 1554, Lyly is best remembered today for Eupheus, the Anatomy of Wit his 1578 prose fiction which seems to have taken London and the court by storm. “All our ladies were then his scholars,” it was later said, “and that beauty at court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”

But that fashionable success has in many respects served to damn him for generation after generation of literary critics. Lyly would abandon prose and become arguably the most successful playwright of the 1580s, writing under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford for the boy companies at the Blackfriars and later at St Paul’s. His reputation though, more than most, suffers from his not being Shakespeare: in literary history Lyly is usually cast simply as a writer whose superficial popularity and wit was superseded by Shakespeare’s greater art. It reflects a dismally Darwinian approach to culture, to say the least; but it is one which Andy’s book is sure to help rectify.

I wasn’t able to make the launch – fittingly held at the Globe Theatre – but a couple of months ago Andy was kind enough to sit down with me over a coffee or two in Paddington for a wide-ranging discussion about Lyly and early modern culture.

ML: I was reading GK Hunter’s article on Lyly in the DNB before I came. I must have read it before but I was struck this morning by the thunderous snobbery of its tone. There’s a moment when Hunter talks about Lyly’s reputation towards the end of the sixteenth century and, to support his thesis that Lyly was no longer fashionable, he has to dismiss Lyly’s evident continuing popularity with the reading public by, essentially, dismissing the entire reading public itself. “Euphues continued to be reprinted (twenty editions of the two parts were printed before the end of the century), but its admirers were no longer at the top of the social scale.”

When you look at it, the way Hunter attempts to hide those twenty editions in parenthesis is sleight-of-hand of the lowest order.

AK: Lyly’s modern editors still say [that sort of thing] very frankly. Scholars of rhetoric say that sort of thing all the time. It’s being read; but it’s being read by the wrong sort of people. It is extraordinary.

ML: Why do you think they say that?

AK: Hunter says elsewhere that Lyly’s tragedy was that he descended into the market and made a fool of himself.

ML: Is it just academic snobbery?

AK: It’s a way of defending the literary canon that scholars prefer to sanction. I think the reason people say that sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth century. There’s a very clear reception process for Lyly. In 1632 Edward Blount edits six Lyly plays, the six core comedies, and writes a preface which claims how important Lyly was to the Elizabethan period.

Lyly is then essentially not read for a hundred years.
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Sir Thomas Smith and covetousness in history

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Sir Thomas Smith, late in life and in poor health, complaining about how difficult it was to work for Elizabeth I. (I also quoted his trenchant observation on the implications of the Ridolfi plot here.)

Smith is a fascinating example of those apparently minor figures in Tudor history who often don’t get the attention they deserve. Born on 23 December 1513, he was the son of a far from prosperous Saffron Waldon sheep-farmer. The relative poverty of his upbringing did not hold him back, however: his outstanding intellect took him to Cambridge University, where he was recognised as one of the leading students of his generation, and then to a career as an academic, an administrator, a privy councillor, and diplomat.

He is often said to have had an abrasive personality, but since he served the regimes of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, albeit in different capacities and not without periods of disfavour, he cannot have been quite as unyieldingly unpleasant as one might think. He was a moderate Protestant with friends across the religious spectrum, and his academic interests ranged from history and linguistics through political theory to chemistry and maths. In later life he was a noted patron of learning, founding two scholarships at Queen’s College, Cambridge and warmly encouraging the likes of Gabriel Harvey, another prodigiously gifted Saffron Walden man of mean background.

Yesterday, however, I came across a fascinating article about his work as an economic theorist. His principal work in this field was The Discourse of the Commonweal, written in 1549 during a period of exile from the court and not published until 1581. It is only recently that the text has been definitively ascribed to him.
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Thomas Kyd: fragments of a life

A scene from The Spanish Tragedy

The life and work of Thomas Kyd offer a perfect example of the problems posed by the erosion of evidence over time – see my post here – since what little we do know seems wholly arbitrary in its survival, yet also hints at the enormity of what we have lost.

Kyd, a prosperous scrivener’s son whose family hailed from the area around Lombard Street, was born in 1558 – he was baptised on 6 November – six years before Shakespeare and Marlowe and fourteen before Jonson. By virtue of his age, therefore, Kyd belongs more than any of them to the hinterland of Elizabethan drama, before works began to appear in print.
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Thomas Cobham: a life of recklessness and reprieve

IMG_0213I didn’t know a great deal about Thomas Cobham when I came across his name in the Middlesex Session Rolls, where he is recorded as one of two men standing surety for a young Walter Ralegh on December 19, 1577, after the latter’s servants had been arrested for a drunken assault on the nightwatch in Shoreditch.

The name seemed familiar, but I wasn’t sure why. It took me a while to retrace my steps and find him again, causing trouble in the background to the Ridolfi Plot, the first catholic attempt to unseat Elizabeth I and replace her on the throne with Mary Stuart. I hadn’t paid him much attention before, but now I started to take a keener interest – something he repaid handsomely.

Cobham’s career, although obscure now, was extraordinary: not many men survive close involvement in two treason plots, but Cobham did. Nor do many escape one death sentence, never mind two. That one of those treason plots was protestant and the other catholic tells you much about Cobham: the taste for disorder, the reckless ambition, the slippery mind.

Despite being well-born, Cobham was a younger son, cursed with expectations and status he had no meaningful income to support. In an earlier generation, he might perhaps have made a good career in the church. Perhaps. But now, he had only his wits – and his connections – to fall back on. As such, he is an ambivalent figure, close to the heart of power but never close enough; perhaps he consciously thrived in the margins, where his busy conspiratorial intelligence could blur the edges of morality and law into nothingness.

The legal record could hardly be drier, but it placed Ralegh in dangerous company:

Recongnizances, taken before Jasper Fyssher esq. JP of Thomas Cobham of Goldinge Lane co. Midd, esq and John Rigges of Davis Inne London gentleman, in the sum of forty pounds each, and of Richard Paunsford yeoman, servant to Walter Rawley esq. Of the Court (de curia) in the sum of one hundred marks; for the appearance of the said Richard at the next Session of the Peace co Midd., to answer such matters as may be objected against him.

Thomas Cobham was a well-known London figure – in some ways a figure on the national stage – but for all the wrong reasons. He stalks the pages of the state papers for two decades, a mischievous and malevolent shadow the regime seemed incapable of dispelling. Yet his life has the archetypal arc of a certain kind of courtier, great youthful hopes trending always down, horizons shrinking, options closing. When report of Cobham’s death came to Burghley on 22 October 1578, there seems to be a sense of eagerness and relief in his brief note of it: “There is news that Thomas Cobham is dead in Flanders”.

Golding Lane, in the parish of St Giles without the walls at Cripplegate, was not a good address: “of  no great account either for buildings or inhabitants”, sniffed Stow.  The road ran north to Old Street from the Barbican – straight over from Red Cross Street – as it still does today, marginally renamed as Golden Lane; if the Middlesex sessions records are anything to go by, it was a frequent locus for trouble of one kind or another, notably theft or assault, although where its residents appear in the Elizabethan state papers the context is usually recusancy. Thomas Cobham, it seems, had fallen far.

Born in 1533, Cobham was a younger son in the most powerful family in Kent, that of George Brooke, ninth Baron Cobham. His elder brother William, who inherited the family title on their father’s death in September 1558, was lord warden of the cinque ports, constable of Dover Castle, and both lord lieutenant and vice-admiral of Kent. Unusually, the family used the title Cobham as a surname; hence “Thomas Brook alias Cobham”, as the House of Commons styled him in a bill of March 1563. In the records, he is almost exclusively referred to as Thomas Cobham. (He was also, as Ralegh knew, a relation, albeit an obscure one, separated by four generations; Ralegh would describe Cobham’s niece, Elizabeth, as a “kinswoman” in a letter to her husband Sir Robert Cecil.)

The Cobham family, like most, could field members on both sides of any dispute; as with many of the great families of the realm, the network of kinship brought them into many apparently conflicting loyalties. Cobham’s extended family contained reformers like the Cecils and Bacons, as well as confirmed Catholics like Southwells and Shelleys. Such networks served them well, allowing them to ride the tides of favour and disfavour with something approaching equanimity. Indeed, to see the loyalties as in conflict is in some sense to miss the point. The first point of loyalty was to family; beyond that, things became more fluid and negotiable.That Thomas Cobham strained that familial loyalty beyond breaking point says much for his behaviour, a rare judgement in a culture that reified and privileged familial bonds above all others, “all kingdoms being but the connection of families”, as Ralegh later wrote.

Along with several family members, Thomas Cobham was active in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Kentish rebellion of 1554 against the catholic queen Mary’s planned marriage to Philip of Spain. Actually, the rising was something of a family affair: Wyatt was Cobham’s first cousin. In fact, Holinshed identifies Cobham as one of the ring-leaders; he was still just 20 years old. Cobham was therefore one of those taken with its leader on Wednesday February 7 as they retreated with their dwindling force of men – some 400-strong – back along Fleet Street from the Belle Sauvage inn at Ludgate, where they had a last desperate hope of support, towards the Temple Bar, in front of which the Earl of Pembroke waited with three squadrons of cavalry.

On surrender, Cobham and his fellow rebels were taken downriver to the Tower. People came to watch, to sneer. Someone took note of his fine clothes: a mailshirt covering a velvet cassock, trimmed with yellow lace, from which hung the windlass of his pistol; a fair velvet hat sporting broad bone-work lace. “Alas Master Cobham,” he was asked as he entered the Tower’s gates, “what wind headed you to work such treason?” His answer was pitiful in its regret: “Oh sir, I was seduced.” The youthful refusal to acknowledge his own recklessness, to admit that he was the leading agent in his self-destruction, is something he would never lose.

Hundreds died in the government’s reprisals, but Cobham, sentenced to a traitor’s death, was not one of them. Mary commuted his sentence after his father pleaded with her. Her forgiveness astounded Simon Renard, the imperial ambassador and her closest adviser, who thought it imprudent, even potentially suicidal, to issue pardons before any evidence had been presented in court: “She might have waited until it came out in the trials whether these men had been of the plot or no,” he complained to Philip II, “for if they had been, she was only adding to her own enemies and to the Lady Elizabeth’s partisans by sparing their lives”. It wouldn’t be the last time that a foreign ambassador would be appalled by the leniency Thomas Cobham received.

Cobham was, at least, confined to the Tower for several years; his deep-etched graffiti, ‘Thomas Cobham, 1555’, can still be seen carved into a window frame overlooking Tower Green. Two of his books still survive in the library of Magdalen College, Oxford – bequeathed to it by Ralegh’s future brother-in-law Arthur Throckmorton. Both volumes carry Cobham’s own scratched verses bemoaning the actions of fortune; pitying himself, his sorrows; hoping for “the happy day” ahead.  Released in early 1557, Cobham quickly showed how little he was capable of mastering himself: compulsive, careless, changeable, he would always be a sail for every wind. By the end of the summer, he was back in the Tower, having stabbed a catholic in a fight in Fleet Street and, on another occasion, led a gang of thieves into the house of an uncle in Blackfriars and stolen 200 marks.

In September 1565, in fact, it was the turn of the Spanish ambassador, Guzman de Silva to be disgusted at Cobham’s continued liberty. At the end of July 1563, Cobham had entered a bond of £500 for one of Elizabeth’s privateering commissions, a business model England had borrowed from its Hugenot allies across the Channel. The nominal target for such activity was French catholic shipping. But Cobham, in common with most other holders of both English and Hugenot letters of marque, was none too picky about which ships he attacked.

On November 2 he attacked two Spanish ships in the Bay of Biscay returning from Flanders and carrying cargoes of wine and tapestries valued variously at 50,000 and 80,000 ducats, together with 40 galley slaves. The Spanish clearly put up more resistance than he expected and the assault became a vicious and prolonged gunfight, leaving more than 40 English dead. It wasn’t until Martin Frobisher, sailing nearby in the Anne Appleyard, came to his rescue – believing, Frobisher claimed, the Spanish to be the aggressor – that Cobham prevailed over one of the ships, the St Katherine, under its captain Martin Saenz de Chaves.

Cobham killed de Chaves brother on boarding the ship. The other vessel, despite the deaths of its owner and master, limped back to the Spanish coast. Cobham, for his part, took his hard-won prize to the Irish port of Baltimore, the preferred choice of English pirates wanting to fence stolen goods. The voyage took seven days, during which the Spanish crew were kept below hatches with the galley slaves, so pressed together that several of them suffocated.

It was unfortunate for Cobham that the goods on board the St Katherine were destined for Philip II. It was too high profile a catch to ignore. By February, Elizabeth had received two formal complaints from the merchants at Antwerp and the Spanish government in the Netherlands. Both identified Cobham by name. Action was promised; none was forthcoming. Elizabeth was equivocal: when De Silva complained to her about piracy she told him that many of those operating in the Channel “were Scotsman who spoke English”. A Flemish embassy, returning from London in May, was particularly disheartened to see Cobham strolling through the streets of Dover. However, after further lobbying, Frobisher and his brother were eventually arrested and sent to Launceston gaol on July 15.

On July 21 Elizabeth took the unusual step of issuing a proclamation specifically targetted at Cobham, demanding that “all persons, of what condition soever they be, to do their uttermost to apprehend by sea or by land the said Thomas or any of his accomplices”. Even so, Cobham remained free, such was his status. It wasn’t until the following March that he was arrested, but De Silva was still unsure that justice would be forthcoming. “I pressed [the queen] very much for the punishment of Thomas Cobham,” he wrote to Philip II, “whom they were trying to get off through the intrigues of his relatives.” A criminal trial resulted in Cobham’s acquital; De Silva pushed harder.

The Queen having learnt what had taken place – and I took care that she was well informed on the subject – ordered her Council to summon the twelve men who had judged the case, and had them charged with a false judgment. They asked for time to answer the charge, and after they had made their excuses they were condemned by public vote to fines of 20l. each… or six months’ imprisonment, and were put in the pillory with papers stuck on them like a cuirass.

A few days later Cobham went before the admiralty court charged with piracy. He was clearly well briefed because he refused to plead. The punishment in such circumstances was extraordinarily brutal. De Silva again:

He was… sentenced to be taken back to the Tower, stripped entirely naked, his head shaved, and the soles of his feet beaten, and then, with his arms and legs stretched, his back resting on a sharp stone, a piece of artillery is to be placed on his stomach too heavy for him to bear but not heavy enough to kill him outright. In this torment he is to be fed on three grains weight of barley and the filthiest water in the prison until he die.

Not unreasonably, De Silva suspected that Cobham’s status would come to his rescue. “His relatives are making great efforts to procure a postponement of the execution of the sentence,” he worried.

But De Silva didn’t realise that the trick had already been pulled. Cobham claimed benefit of clergy, an already anachronistic medieval right that enabled clerics to escape civil justice if they could prove their literacy by reading psalm 51, the miserere, commonly known as the ‘neck verse’, irrespective of any actual affiliation to the church. Many judges would not hear such claims, but Cobham’s judges did, despite the fact that piracy was one of the few crimes to which it wasn’t applicable; by refusing to offer a plea and avoiding a guilty verdict he had cheated death again. It would hardly be surprising if Cobham believed himself to have a charmed life, floating free from the ordinary restraints of justice. “Thomas Cobham reprieved; 15 pirates hanged” reads one terse Privy Council record. It would ever be thus.

If piractical shadows like these were all that dogged Cobham, we might shrug our shoulders at Ralegh’s connection with him: Ralegh’s own record in this regard was hardly unblemished. But it is Cobham’s involvement in more dangerous, political deceits at the close of the 1560s which makes their apparent friendship of more than passing interest, opening up a thread of activity and associations in Ralegh’s own young career which has never been adequately mined.

Cobham disappears from view after 1565. When he resurfaces in October 1569 he is a prisoner in the Tower again. But for all the continuity such a state of affairs implies, many things had changed: Mary Stuart was in England. I have written about the Ridolfi Plot, and Cobham’s role in it, here.

For all that Cobham’s maritime activities spilled over into outright piracy – or were certainly regarded as having done so by the Elizabethan authorities – they are still on a continuum with those of his more reputable peers, different in quality perhaps but not in kind. He belongs more clearly to the hazardous morality of the aspiring courtiers, putting the creation of personal wealth above all else. In this sense, his kinship with Ralegh – as with Gascoigne, Noel, et al – is apparent.

As for his brushes with treason, it was by no means obvious, in the wake of the northern rebellion, that Elizabeth’s government would survive. Cobham was merely riding the odds, trying to ensure he had a claim to favour whoever had the upper hand. He was hardly alone in that.

Cobham stayed in the Tower until April 1574, around the time that Ralegh must have arrived in London. The offences with which he is associated become increasingly small beer. There was a longstanding dispute over his dealings with the freebooters in the Channel, which dated back to the weeks after his arrest in 1571, when an inquiry was launched “without respect of favour towards him of whom we hear so many complaints for his misbehavior as we cannot pass the same over.” If he was to some extent disowned by his family now – or at least kept at arm’s length – there is no indication that the seafaring community felt the same.

On 27 August 1575, he is rumoured to have colluded with Hawkins, Frobisher, and two other unnamed captains, to lead five warships out from the Thames to attack Spanish shipping, notionally on behalf of the Hugenots. He seems to have been involved in the aftermath – and perhaps the planning – of a raid on a ship called the Argosy moored in the Thames, being suspected of dealing in the stolen goods.

And then there is this brief, unnoticed glimpse of him with Ralegh’s company before he disappears again into the shadows.

NB. This is a greatly expanded version of material on Thomas Cobham from my book, The Favourite.

For more on Catholic conspiracies against Elizabeth, see my posts on George Gifford and the psychology of treason.

The gains doth seldom quit the charge: Henry Noel at the court of Elizabeth I

This is the third in my series of posts on a disparate group of courtiers in the 1570s and 1580s – for the purposes of this blog, I am calling them the Lost Elizabethans – who I first encountered researching The Favourite. Although well known in their day – I suspect both Noel, the subject of this post, and George Gascoigne were what we would now call minor celebrities – they are defined as much as anything today by their failure.

In many respects, although they were still exceptional men, it is their failure that makes them so interesting – and certainly more representative of their peers than an outlier like Ralegh. Their experiences struggling for preferment at the margins of the court are particularly revealing of the perilous hand-to-mouth realities faced by young ambitious gentlemen with little in the way of income to sustain either their present position or their future hopes.

I mentioned, in my post on George Gascoigne, a rebus on Ralegh which Gabriel Harvey noted in his copy of The Steele Glas. Harvey doesn’t say so, but the lines were spoken by Henry Noel, a young Leicestershire gentleman. Noel was an integral part of Ralegh’s circle in the late 1570s and early 1580s, and the ultimate failure of his career has much to tell us about Ralegh himself and the choices he made.

Indeed, as young men about town the had much in common. Both were younger sons in an age in which almost all wealth and privilege acrrued to the eldest son; well educated but under-employed, often deep in debt, as a class such men tended towards malcontent. ‘Where many younger sons, of younger brothers, have neither lands nor means to uphold themselves… there can it not be avoided but the whole body of the state (howsoever otherwise healthfully disposed) should suffer anguish by the grievance of these ill-affected members,’ Ralegh would later write. Moreover, although Noel was a few years Ralegh’s senior, like Ralegh he had left Cambridge without a degree and was trying to attract preferment at court.

Noel’s impromptu rebus on Ralegh’s name:

The enemy to the stomach, and the word of disgrace
Is the gentleman’s name, that bears the good face

was composed in response to Ralegh’s on his:

The word of denial, and the letter of fifty
Makes the gentleman’s name that will never be thrifty.

This was – characteristically for Ralegh – a painfully sharp observation. Noel was, in fact, notoriously extravagent: ‘Though his lands and livelihood were but small, having nothing known certain but his annuity and his pension, yet in state, pomp, magnificence and expense did equalize the barons of great worth’ runs his posthumous encomium in William Burton’s 1622 Description of Leicestershire. Sir Francis Bacon, looking back from 1625 remembered one of Noel’s mordant, self-deprecating witticisms: ‘Henry Noel would say that the courtiers were like the fasting days; they were next the holy days, but in themselves were the most meagre days of the week.’

Unsurprisingly, given this, Noel was often in debt. By the 1590s, he was reduced to sending Sir Robert Cecil, the influential son of Lord Burghley later instrumental in Ralegh’s ruin, a series of thinly disguised begging letters. ‘That bounty is admired which with a present gift offers an after hope,’ Noel wrote – somewhat ungratefully – after Cecil had arranged for him to receive the monopoly on the import of pottery and stoneware. Cecil certainly found Noel’s pleading irksome; he wrote to another correspondent shortly after of ‘Mr. Noel’s suit, of which [I] would fain be rid’.

But like all his peers, Ralegh included, Noel had to spend money – large sums, as Burton noted – to maintain his position at court. He was the epitome of that curious species, the courtier as adornment. Although he would see military service with Leicester in the Netherlands in 1586-7, Noel’s primary fame at court derived from his status as a lead participant in one of the most self-consciously extravagant spectacles in the court calendar, the Accession Day tilts.

Elizabeth’s accession on 17 November had not been particularly commemorated during the first decade of her reign. But beginning from the late 1560s, and given added patriotic impetus by the Northern rebellion of 1569 and Ridolfi plot of 1570 which shocked court and country alike, communities across England marked the day with bell ringing and feasting. It was a rare secular holiday – albeit one that accrued sacral elements as the cult of the Virgin Queen took hold towards the end of her reign – to replace the rich cycle of holy days in the old faith’s ritual year.

The tilts at Whitehall themselves – which took place in the royal tiltyard, which corresponds more or less exactly to the open spaces occupied by Horseguard’s Parade today – did not emerge as a feature until at least the 1570s, and would in fact have to wait until the following decade to reach their full bloom under the supervision of Master of the Armoury and Queen’s Champion, Sir Henry Lee.

The first recorded Accession Day tilt was in 1583 and the bulk of the participants were drawn, as they would customarily be, from the ranks of the Gentleman Pensioners, among whom are to be found several other pivotal figures from Ralegh’s early years in London: his friend and cousin, Edward Denny, was one; Ralph Lane, later intimately involved in Ralegh’s Roanoke project, was another; George Gifford, whom I have written about here, was a third.

An Accession Day tilt was held every year until the end of Elizabeth’s reign, with the exception of 1592. Henry Noel tilted in every one bar the last until his death in early 1597.

Aside from the social and therefore political cachet of participation, the tilts were an opportunity to create or reposition your image at court, to display, in Ralegh’s phrase ‘the false beauty of our apparent actions’. Each year, tilters spent months developing symbolic disguises or personae, which would then inform the designs on their armour, their horse’s furniture, the liveries of the serving men, and the chariots on which the tilters made their entry to the tiltyard – often drawn by exotic animals, such as lions or camels. The device would be explicated to the queen and the wider audience – the tilts drew thousands of spectators each year – by one of the tilter’s servants in a speech, often humourous but always pointed, and in an impresa, or painted shield, gifted to the queen on the tilter’s behalf.

This was a serious business; among those known to have been commissioned to work on such creations are Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage and Ben Jonson. Philip Sidney himself participated in several Accession Day tilts; in the second book of his Arcadia, there is a thinly disguised account of the experience of tilting against Sir Henry Lee, which underscores the extent to which participation was about spectacle and show, rather than competition. Lee, in the character of Lelius, is riding against Sidney, here named Philisides:

Lelius (who was known to be second to none in the perfection of that art) ran ever over his head, but so finely to the skilful eyes, that one might well see, he shewed more knowledge in missing, then others did in hitting. For with so gallant a grace his staff came swimming close over the crest of the helmet, as if he would represent the kiss, and not the stroke of Mars.

The poet and playwright George Peele, in fact, has left us a description of ‘noble minded Nowell’ from the 1590 tilt in his poem celebrating the event, Polyhymia

All arm’d in sables with rich bandalier,
That bawdrick wise he ware, set with fair stones
And pearls of Inde, that like a silver bend
Shew’d on his varnish’d corslet black as jet,
And beauteous plumes and bases sutable,
And on his stirrop waits a trusty train
Of servants, clad in tawny liveries

It is not hard to see how this emphasis on iconography and self-image could and did distort its participants sense of reality: idealised personae could be created, fashioned to reflect ambitions and desires, the unwanted or inconvenient conveniently shed, discarded like old friends. Ralegh and his peers were comfortable making and remaking themselves: ‘We labour hard to publish our abilities and conceal our infirmities,’ he wrote, ‘and our inquiries into ourselves is so slight and partial that few men are really what they appear to themselves to be.’ The difficulty came when the perfected idea of themselves, transposed out of the controlled, fictive, fluid environment of the court, collided with more stubborn unpliable realities.

Debt, of course, was the most persistent and pervasive of such realities; ‘it was a long time before he could brag of more than he carried at his back’, a friend later said of Ralegh. And given his necessary extravagance, it is no wonder that Noel, a younger son whose only meaningful sources of income were those he received as rewards from the queen, was chronically short of cash. Lupold von Wedel, a German visitor to the court in 1584, estimated that cost of the Accession Day tilts ‘amounted to several thousand pounds each’ for the participants. That was an exaggeration; but it could certainly cost hundreds each year. Sir Robert Cary spent over £400 in 1593 as an attempt to buy his return to the queen’s favour after a frowned-upon marriage.

Unfortunately for Noel, his other talents were equally ornamental. A skilled dancer and musician himself, he was friend to and sometime patron of the Catholic composer and lutenist John Dowland, who composed seven psalm settings for Noel’s funeral at Westminster Abbey. Thomas Morley, too – responsible for planting the Italian madrigal tradition in England and a no-less influential composer of sacred music – published an elegy for Noel the same year. ‘With angels now he singeth,’ the lyric runs, ‘That here loved music dearly.’

Noel also received dedications from another friend, the fashionably influential poet and playwright, Thomas Watson, both in 1585. In Amyntas,Watson wrote fondly of him, ‘how could I not remember such a welcoming expression, delightful talk and noble refinement as your own’. For the Compendium Memoriam Localis his praise is at once more formal and more exalting: Noel is ‘a man whom men consider to be the glory of time past, a jewel of the present, and a precious, splendid and virtually the only hope for the future; and finally a man whom they judge to be steeped in the knowledge of good literature, imbued with honourable qualities of character, and rich in heroic virtues’. Watson was an Oxford man later to become close to Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford, both part of Ralegh’s circle at different times; like Morley, Watson was a sometime Catholic and occasional spy.

Although Noel’s own religion is unknown, he was certainly sympathetic to the Catholic cause. As well as acting as patron to Catholic artists such as Dowland and Watson, he was a regular fixture in the predominantly Catholic – indeed, dangerously Catholic – circles around the aforementioned Earl of Oxford in the latter part of the 1570s. Noel also later kept a French monk in his household who spied for the French ambassador at court, and was one of those who had a copy of Charles Arundell’s vicious satire Leicester’s Commonwealth, which the government tried very hard to suppress. (Arundell was another alumni of Oxford’s cabal.)

Thus far, Noel seems an attractive, if slight figure – ‘one of the great gallants’ as Sir John Harington remembered him. But it is well to remember that this world of conspicuous extravagance, artful self-mythologising and cultural aspiration was built out of personal debt and a hand-to-mouth desperation, a visceral need to be useful. It wasn’t simply that these men needed employment; they needed a stage, an arena in which to both demonstrate and amplify their talents and worth. Anything which didn’t tend to their glory diminished their lustre. At once vain and insecure, they responded with contempt to restraint.

Consider Noel’s brushes with the law, which reveal something different to the gilded butterfly he made of himself at court, the idealised, jewel-encrusted figure who rode in the tilts. Noel was first arrested in May 1579 for his part in a fight with one John Parker, a gentleman, and his servants, in which one of Parker’s servants died. Four years later, in July 1583, Noel was in trouble again: he had to use his position and leverage at court when Sir William Fleetwood, the recorder of London, who clearly was all too familiar with Noel, sought his arrest for his involvement in an almost identical crime: the killing of a carman by one of his servants. Fleetwood complained wearily of Noel and his ilk to Burghey:

Mr Nowell and his man are like to be indicted. Whereof I am sure to be much troubled what with letters and his friends and what by other means as in the very like case heretofore I have been even with the same man. There are sundry young gentlemen that use the court that most commonly term themselves gentlemen; when any of these have done any thing and are complained of or arrested for debt then they run to me and no other excuse or answer can they make but say, ‘I am a gentleman and being a gentleman I am not thus to be used as a slave and a colious pander’. I know not what other plea Mr Noel can plead but this I say that is foul. God send him good deliverance. I think in my conscience that he maketh no reckoning of the matter

Fleetwood here captures the authentic tone of Noel, Ralegh and their peers: self-righteous, capricious, contemptuous; habituated to casual violence as a counter to boredom or constraint. Morality for these men was conditional: a mask to be worn in service of self-advancement, not an end in itself. But perhaps that does them a dis-service. It may be truer to say that they regarded personal success and the accrual of wealth as their highest moral calling. ‘Poverty is oftentimes sent as a curse of God; it is a shame amongst men, an imprisonment of the mind, a vexation of every worthy spirit… [it] provokes a man to do infamous and detested deeds,’ Ralegh later wrote. His early years in London gave him ample opportunity to observe the truth of his insight.

Noel died, unmarried and still waiting for some preferment that might secure his fortune, on 26 February 1597. A verse from Thomas Weelkes’ Madrigals of 5 and 6 Parts, Apt for the Viols and Voices, printed in 1600, perhaps offers the most generous epitaph:

Noel, adieu, adieu, thou court’s delight.
Upon whose locks the Graces sweetly played;
Now thou art dead our pleasure dies outright,
For who can joy when thou art in dust laid?
Bedew, my notes, his death-bed with your tears.
Time helps some grief, no time your grief outwears.

Weelkes – a brilliant but abrasive, drink-troubled composer – can’t have been much more than 20 when Noel died, and his tribute is therefore eloquent testimony to Noel’s stature in musical circles. But it is not difficult to see why Noel – perhaps fatally seduced by the praise he earned in the grave superficialities of courtly ritual – found it hard to gain meaningful employment in more practical fields. He was a man trapped by his reputation, his talents, between the dazzle and glamour of court display and the more intractable political realities such entertainments elided.

As far as I know, Fuller’s is the only source for the details of Noel’s death:

Being challenged by an Italian gentleman to play at baloun [according to the OED, baloun was ‘a game played with a large inflated ball of strong double leather, struck to and fro with the arm protected by a wooden bracer] he so heated his blood, that, falling into a fever, he died thereof, and by her majesty’s appointment, was buried in the Abbey of Westminster, and chapel of St Andrew

It seems somehow fitting that death found him playing a game at court.


NB. This is a greatly expanded version of material on Henry Noel from my book, The Favourite.

Dreams of escape – George Gifford: courtier, con-man, conspirator

Despite the notoriety which still clouds men like Anthony Babington, executed in 1586 for plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I, history’s selective memory has been kind in overlooking the dubious career of other men who flirted with regicide in the same period. Indeed, one man, despite never having attempted the act, seems to have been almost something of an inspiration to Babington and his followers. He was a courtier named George Gifford.

George Gifford was a Throckmorton on his mother’s side. Born in 1552, his father died when he was ten, and Gifford inherited two manors, Weston-under-Edge in Gloucestershire and Ithell in Hampshire, together with further lands in Wiltshire, collectively worth some £116 8s 8d. His personal faith is unclear, but there was a history of recusancy in both the Gifford and Throckmorton families, and his younger brother William was a prominent Catholic exile – of whom more later – who left England in 1573, perhaps coincidentally the year Gifford was granted livery of his lands, and ultimately became Archbishop of Rheims.

A courtier by 1573, George Gifford was made a gentleman pensioner in 1578 and seems to have been a prominent one: he was among the Whitehall tilters in 1581, and again in 1583, 1584 and 1585. He is usually said to have married Eleanor Brydges, both a distant member of the Cecil family, and therefore kinswoman to Lord Burghley, and the stepdaughter of Sir William Knollys, younger brother to Henry Knollys and Lettice Devereux. However, it was his namesake, the recusant George Gifford of Chillington, who married Brydges, who almost certainly shared his faith, as her mother and brother did too.

Our Gifford must have met Ralegh around 1578, when both can be found in the dysfunctional, seditious clique around the earl of Oxford, men characterised, in John Bossy’s superb phrase, by “a certain sense of ‘outness’”. It was also about this time that things began to unravel for him. Like all the gentlemen pensioners he seems to have been perennially short of money, and as early as 1579 he was forced to sell his Hampshire lands to the earl of Southampton.
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Haste, post haste: George Gascoigne and friends

Sometime in London in the autumn of 1577, Gabriel Harvey, the son of a Saffron Waldon ropemaker and a self-consciously brilliant young Cambridge academic, opened up his copy of The Steele Glas, and turned to one of the volume’s three commendatory poems. It was signed: “Walter Rawely of the Middle Temple”. A compulsive – indeed, obsessive – annotator of other men’s work, Harvey paused to note down a rebus he had heard, perhaps among his friends in Leicester’s circle, based on the poet’s name:

The enemy to the stomach, and the word of disgrace
Is the gentleman’s name, that bears the good face.

Beside this, in the margin, Harvey wrote by way of explanation: “Rawley”. This, a poem for his friend Gascoigne, was Ralegh’s first step on the public stage.

But when Gabriel Harvey picked up his copy of that book, the first thing he would have seen was a portrait of the author on the verso. George Gascoigne looks out at the reader, books over his left shoulder, an arquebus and other weapons over his right. Beneath the portrait is Gascoigne’s latest motto, tam marti quam mercurio – made for war as much as wisdom. This, like the commendatory poems, is another kind of advertisement, a personal strap line, articulating what ‘brand Gascoigne’ had to offer. Writing retrospectively to defend his first foray into print in 1573 Gascoigne would say: “Being busied in martial affairs (whereby I also sought some advancement) I thought good to notify unto the world before my return, that I could as well persuade with pen, as pierce with lance or weapon: So that yet some noble mind might be encouraged both to exercise me in time of peace and to employ me in time of service in war.”
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