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Spenser's Life

Abstract and Keywords

This article details the life of Spenser gleaned from three sources: his Irish letters, his poetry and prose, and the testimony of contemporaries. Spenser was born in London, in ‘East Smithfield near the Tower’, if we believe one early commentator. The likeliest date of birth is 1552, based on evidence of activities in 1569. The year 1569 is when Spenser first materializes in several guises: pupil at Merchant Taylors' School for boys, fresher at Cambridge, published translator, and courier in France. The year 1579 was especially auspicious. On 27 October 1579 Spenser married ‘Machabyas Chylde’ at St Margaret's Church, Westminster. On 6 November, Lord Justice Pelham proclaimed at Limerick that every English horseman under his command should wear red crosses, front and back, ‘either of Silke or Cloth’. Coming so close to Spenser's embarking on The Faerie Queene this appears fortuitous. On 5 December, The Shepheardes Calender was entered in the Stationers' Register.

Keywords: poets, Edmund Spenser, biography, translator, courier, The Shepheardes Calender

Sources and Silences

The list of Elizabethan Edmund Spensers includes one who fathered a son called Hamlet in 1570 (Eccles 1944: 421; Welply 1932: 129). Probably no relation, though given the uncertainty surrounding the sources for the poet's life, anything's possible. Alas poor Spenser, we do not know him well. Two weddings and a funeral can be confirmed. Much else is speculation. Even the marriages and burial retain question marks. Neither a 1938 search for Spenser's grave in Westminster nor excavations sixty years later at Kilcolman, Spenser's home for the last ten years of his life, yielded significant results, though the ‘E. K.’ latterly engaged in the Kilcolman project, Eric Klingelhöfer, has given us the lineaments of Spenser's living arrangements (Eagle 1956; Klingelhööfer 2005). Nor does this essay promise to unearth fresh evidence, though it is a dig of sorts that sets out to sift the settled facts of the life. A familiar lament in Spenser studies is the absence of a proper biography. The 1922 Irish Public Record Office fire destroyed a key archive. Fortunately, some scholars had access to that material, which is why we know about Spenser's second wife and son (Welply 1932: 169). Papers allegedly destroyed in the fire at Kilcolman in October 1598 are beyond us.

Rather than bewail what we lack, this essay focuses on existing documentary evidence, following the course of the life, detailing key events and probabilities in a rigorous examination of the extant evidence, with as much by way of conclusion as it will bear. Knowledge of Spenser's life is gleaned from three sources: his Irish letters, his poetry and prose, and the testimony of contemporaries. Douglas Hamer, commenting on Spenser's second marriage before the first was widely known, said of the tendency to seek information in Amoretti and Epithalamion: ‘It is exceedingly dangerous to assume biographical facts from the dates of publication of Spenser's poems’ (Hamer 1931: 271). (p. 14) If extrapolating from the literary work risks becoming too speculative, sticking to the secretarial work is equally fraught, as here the poet is acting as amanuensis rather than author. There has to be more to Spenser's life than his whereabouts in Ireland at a given time. Future work—Burlinson and Zurcher's selection of Spenser's letters, and Brink's researches—will augment our understanding. Andrew Hadfield's claim that ‘The more literary may, paradoxically, be the more truthful work’, makes his biography even more eagerly anticipated (Hadfield 2008: 72).

If the few ‘facts’ of Spenser's life are found in his own writings, those of contemporaries, and the Irish state papers, the problem is that the first includes works anonymous, controversial, and disputed, the second consists of backhanded compliments as well as praise, and the third contains the main body of Spenser's handwriting, but in the rather prosaic form of letters dictated by his employers (though with some poetic license). Few writers with such substantial bodies of published work leave so little in the way of surviving literary manuscripts, though the letters he scribed and signed amount to a significant holograph archive. The evidence of the state papers and other documentary material, the evidence of the prose, including prefaces, literary letters, and the View, the evidence of the poetry, and the evidence of his peers are all we have.

Through organizing messengers during Grey's deputyship, Spenser gained access to supplies of ink and paper. The fruits of office were self‐evident. To be in charge of so much writing material, in a country nicknamed ‘the paper state’ for its administrative burden and reliance on intelligence, was perfect for any author, especially one engaged in an epic production (Morgan 1993: 17). Although Spenser's status as secretary has been elegantly explored by Richard Rambuss (1993), his role as messenger is arguably less remarked upon. If he was literally made in Ireland, like his greatest work, then this context was long underexplored. Recently, the pendulum has swung from embarrassment to excitement. It is now hard to read Spenser outside of an exhaustive Irish context precisely because the documentary evidence is concentrated in the Irish state papers. This has enriched our understanding, but skewed the life.

Modest Beginnings

The verse epistle to The Shepheardes Calender refers to it as ‘child whose parent is unkent’. Its author's origins are equally obscure. His father may have been the John Spenser who moved to London in the 1560s—described as a ‘free jorneyman’ in the ‘arte or mysterie of clothmakinge’ in October 1566 (Heffner 1938–9: 83)—and joined the Merchant Taylors Company, since Edmund was schooled at an institution founded by that company. In Amoretti 74, Spenser's mother's name is given as Elizabeth. A letter from Harvey suggests Spenser had siblings, including a younger brother. At least one followed him to Ireland. Beyond their possible names—Sarah, and John (or James)—little is known of them.

(p. 15) Here is what we think we know. Spenser was born in London, in ‘East Smithfield near the Tower’, if we believe one early commentator (Heffner 1938–9: 84). The poet himself tells us only that he was a Londoner by birth: ‘mery London, my most kyndly Nurse, | That to me gaue this Lifes first natiue sourse’, as he says in Prothalamion (127–8). The likeliest date of birth is 1552, based on evidence of activities in 1569. Spenser began his formal education at the new Merchant Taylors' School for boys, founded by the Guild of Merchant Taylors on 20 September 1561, formally constituted four days later. The school was housed in an old mansion called the Manor of the Rose, in the parish of St Lawrence‐Pountney. Statutes limited pupils to 250, comprising 100 poor men's sons, making no parental contribution, 50 others at half‐fee of 5 shillings a quarter, and 100 ‘rich or mean men's children’. Spenser entered Merchant Taylors' as a ‘poor scholar’. Its headmaster, classical scholar and educational theorist Richard Mulcaster, was an eloquent advocate of the English language who nonetheless recognized the necessity of augmenting it with borrowings from other tongues. Among fellow students were Thomas Kyd, Lancelot Andrewes, and Thomas Lodge. The school day began at 7 a.m. summer and winter, and ended at 5 p.m., with an intermission from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

On 16 August 1562, a visitation to Merchant Taylors' involved Edmund Grindal, Alexander Nowell, and Thomas Watts, key figures in Spenser's early years. At eight o'clock on the morning of 13 November 1564, pupils presented themselves before a board of examiners, including Miles Coverdale, renowned for his 1535 translation of the Bible. Spenser may have been amongst those who presented copies of verses and epistles to Bishop Grindal, later praised as ‘Algrin’ in The Shepheardes Calender ( ‘Julye’, 213–30). Also present was Alexander Nowell, Dean of St Paul's (Maley 1994: 2). The Dean's brother, Robert Nowell, Attorney of the Court of Wards, established before his death a fund for poor scholars, of which Spenser was beneficiary both at school and on going up to Cambridge. Nowell is reputedly the bridge between Spenser and the Dudleys (Webster 1934). On 12 November 1565 a third visitation was undertaken by Watts. Two other Spensers are associated with the Merchant Taylors' Company in this period, Robert, and Nicholas, elected Warden on 12 July 1568 (Brink 1997: 50).

1569: Senior Schoolboy, First‐Year Student, Foreign Servant, Translator

1569 is the year Spenser first materializes in several guises: pupil at Merchant Taylors', fresher at Cambridge, published translator, and courier in France.

The only official record of Spenser's schooldays dates from his final year, when he was one of six ‘poor schollers’ gifted a gown and shilling for the funeral of wealthy (p. 16) London lawyer Robert Nowell, who died on 6 February 1569 and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral. Among the other schoolboys—thirty‐one from five London schools—was Richard Hakluyt (1552?–1616) of Westminster School (Hamer 1947: 219–20). Hakluyt was the same age as Spenser, suggesting this was a role performed by senior boys. On 28 April 1569 Spenser next shows up on the radar, receiving ten shillings from the Nowell bequest, ‘at his gowinge to penbrocke hall in chambridge’ (Eccles 1944: 414). Dean Alexander Nowell was trustee of his brother's estate, and his steward, James Wotton, kept a book of disbursements.

On 20 May Spenser was admitted to Pembroke Hall, one of thirteen ‘sizars’, poor scholars given servant's duties, from ‘size’, a portion of bread and ale which the poor student had free. Before matriculating, Spenser embarked on a literary career. His translations of poems by Petrarch and Du Bellay appeared with woodcut illustrations as an introduction to A Theatre for Worldlings (1569), entered in the Stationers' Register by Henry Bynneman on 22 July 1569 (see Chapter 8 below). In his work, Spenser is largely silent about the facts of his own early life, besides a brief allusion to ‘mother Cambridge’ in the description of the river Cam in Book IV of The Faerie Queene (IV.xi.34.7). We know he forged a friendship with Fellow of Pembroke and Professor of Rhetoric, Gabriel Harvey (1552–1631), a close contemporary in years, but a senior member of the college during Spenser's time as an undergraduate.

As well as having translations published as he progressed from school to university, and of a type that prefigures The Shepheardes Calender—poems with woodcuts, presented anonymously—Spenser seems to have served as a messenger in the pay of the Elizabethan state, foreshadowing his long secretarial service in Ireland. On 18 October 1569, a bill was signed to ‘Edmonde Spencer’ for bearing letters from Tours, in France, for Sir Henry Norris (c.1525–1601), English ambassador there, to Elizabeth, suggesting Spenser was engaged at an early stage in his career in secretarial work for influential figures:

Payde upon a bill signed by Mr Secretarye dated at Wyndsor xviijo Octobris 1569 To Edmonde Spencer that broughte lres to the Quenes Matis from Sir Henrye Norrys knighte her Mats Embassador in Fraunce beinge then at Towars in the sayde Realme, for his charges the some of vjli.xiijs.iiijd. over and besydes ixli. prested to hym by Sir Henrye Norrys. (Maley 1994: 4)

Spenser's knowledge of French—his translations made him a worldly worldling—rendered him a prime candidate for such an assignment, and lest we think him young at seventeen we must remember the equally youthful Raleigh was in this very month serving with the Huguenots in France (Eccles 1944: 415). Sir Henry Norris arrived in France in 1567 as English ambassador, probably through the influence of the Earl of Leicester, and played a lead role in unsuccessful negotiations over the return of Calais in line with the treaty of Cateau‐Cambrésis of 3 April 1559. It would be interesting had Spenser witnessed the end of the English pale in France before settling in the English pale in Ireland.

If the Edmund Spenser who carried letters from France for Sir Henry Norris on 18 October 1569 was the poet this has implications for his date of birth. One cannot (p. 17) conceive of a fifteen‐year‐old boy being entrusted with sensitive state documents, suggesting an earlier date of birth than 1554, closer to 1552. There would be a neat circularity in Spenser's career as a courier—and he was courier rather than courtier—if he was the bearer of these letters, as his last act on record was carrying correspondence back to London from Cork for the fifth of Sir Henry's six sons, Sir Thomas Norris (1556–99), almost exactly thirty years after fulfilling a similar duty for his father, and for a similar sum.

If Spenser was carrying letters to the Continent as a seventeen year old this chimes with his entrance into Cambridge and first published work. Precocious? Yes, but not overly so. In Tragicall Tales (1587) George Turberville (c.1543/4–97?) addressed an epistle to his friend ‘Spencer’ dating from 1569, when Turberville was secretary to the English ambassador to Russia (Turberville 1587: 186). Most critics discount this reference (J. M. B. 1854: 204; Rollins 1918: 533–5)—others ignore it (Sheidley 1990)—while Craik's comment that Turberville, being about thirty, was ‘not the age at which men choose boys of sixteen for their friends’ strains credulity (Hales 1869: liv). Turberville was as young as twenty‐five in 1569, and as a captain in Ireland in 1580 was a contemporary of Spenser's there (Lyne 2004). Is it so far‐fetched that a young man—and published poet—entrusted with letters to the English ambassador to France might be the recipient of an epistle from his Russian counterpart? Did foreign service in France mark the beginning of Spenser's career as a secretary?

In November/December of this year a James Spenser was serving as Master of the Ordnance in Ireland, and if he is a relative, this suggests Spenser may have had family connections in that country prior to his official arrival there in 1580 with Lord Grey (Maley 1994: 4, 11). Spenser received further payments from the Nowell bequest over the next two years—six shillings on 7 November 1570, two shillings and sixpence on 24 April 1571. Further evidence of his financial need and the sources of patronage on which he depended? Or does the myth of the ‘poor scholar’ fail to grasp that this term was a conventional construction that need not imply real poverty (Hamer 1947: 223)? Finally, as part of the warp and woof of this period it's worth noting that another recipient of the Nowell bequest was Pembroke contemporary Edward Kirk, prime candidate for E. K. (Hamer 1941: 221). Kirk matriculated as sizar in November 1571 (Cooper 1860).

In 1571 there is a John Spenser at Merchant Taylors' School, a John Spenser matriculated as sizar at Pembroke in Easter 1575, taking his BA in 1577–8, and a John Spenser installed as Constable of Limerick on 23 November 1579. If these three are one, the parallels with Edmund's career strengthen the conjecture that John was the poet's brother. In 1570 or early 1571, Harvey was involved in a debate at Hill Hall, Theydon Mount, Essex, centre of the Smith family estate. Participants in a discussion of classical precedents for colonial projects included Thomas Smith junior, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Thomas Smith, Dr Walter Haddon, John Wood, ‘and several others of gentle birth’. In Foure Letters, 1592, Harvey refers to ‘my Cosen, M. Thomas Smith…Colonel of the Ards in Ireland’ (Jardine 1993: 65; Stern 1979: 65–6). Since the early 1570s are the period of Spenser's closest involvement with Harvey, the Smith debate, recorded by Harvey in Latin marginal notes to his copy of Livy's Decades, (p. 18) suggests an early acquaintance with Irish affairs. Spenser mentions Smith and Harvey together in the gloss on ‘couthe’ in the January eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender, where Smith's book of the commonwealth (De Republica Anglorum) is name checked ( ‘Januarye’, 10 gloss).

At Cambridge, Spenser received five ‘aegrotat’ (sick) payments: eleven and a half weeks between Lent and Trinity, 1571; six weeks in Midsummer and seven at Michaelmas (September–December), 1572; six weeks in September 1574, and thirteen weeks from that October to Epiphany. One critic wonders whether the ‘suspicious frequency’ of such payments, if alluding to absences from Cambridge, might suggest Spenser was taking care of business or bearing letters abroad rather than laid up in bed. A year's absence is a considerable period. Does the fact that supplicats for Spenser's degrees contain supposedly standard caveats about fulfilment of requirements point to spells of interrupted study in the service of the state (Millican 1939)? Or does the fact that such payments are common, and the particular periods of absence coincide with spells when the university broke up because of plague, make any suspicions intriguing but unsustainable (Attwater 1936: 48–9)? Richard McCabe makes the telling point that Cambridge would be unlikely to pay its students for service to a patron or the state, and it's worth recalling that the ‘Edmonde Spencer’ who delivered letters for Henry Norris was paid twice, by Norris and the Crown.

Spenser obtained his BA on 16 January 1573, entitling him to be called a ‘gentleman’, officially styled ‘Dominus’, graduating MA on 26 June 1576, sixty‐sixth in a list of seventy (Millican 1939: 469). What does a graduate of Cambridge, with some experience as a messenger, do? If Spenser's nurse was London, and his mother Cambridge, then Ireland was his foster mother, and a rough raising it was too. It was in Limerick on 1 July 1577, if we are to accept the alleged eyewitness account of Irenius in the View as the poet's own recollection, that Spenser saw a grief‐stricken foster mother drink her son's blood rather than let the earth absorb it (Prose, 112). This account of the execution of ‘A notable Traitour’, Murrogh O'Brien, can be read alongside the fact that a messenger named Spenser is recorded delivering letters and a ‘cast of falcons’ to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, from Sir William Drury (1527–79), Lord President of Munster on 8 July 1577 (Maley 1994: 7). Spenser was possibly serving the then Lord Deputy, Henry Sidney, Leicester's brother‐in‐law. Philip Sidney's ‘Discourse of Irish Affairs’, written in September 1577, was presented to the queen in January 1578. On 12 September 1578 Henry Sidney left Ireland for the last time, and two days later Drury was sworn in as Lord Justice. Spenser claims acquaintance with Philip Sidney by 5 October 1579 (Prose, 6).

Dr John Young, former Master of Pembroke Hall, became Bishop of Rochester in Kent on 1 April 1578 and Spenser soon became his secretary (Long 1916). For this two pieces of evidence survive, an embarrassment of riches. On 23 November Spenser made out a rental receipt as secretary to Bishop Young, and on 20 December he presented Harvey in London with four ‘foolish bookes’—Howleglas, Scoggin, Skelton, and Lazarillo—telling him he must read them by 1 January or forfeit his four‐volume Lucian (Stern 1979: 228). Spenser also presented Harvey with a piece of travel literature, a copy of Jerome Turler's The Traveiler, published in 1575, inscribed: (p. 19) ‘Gabrielis Harveij’. ‘ex dono Spenserii, Episcopi Roffensis Secretarii. 1578’ (A gift of Edmund Spenser, secretary of the Bishop of Rochester) (Stern 1979: 237). Harvey alludes to Turler's book in the letter to Spenser of 23 October 1579 (Prose, 444; Maley 1994: 8).

1579: Shepherd, Colin, Immerito

1579 was especially auspicious. The prefatory epistle to The Shepheardes Calender, signed ‘E. K.’, dated ‘from my lodging at London thys 10. of Aprill’, mentions lost works, salvaged as parts of longer poems (one, the ‘Courte of Cupide’, presumably reworked as The Faerie Queene III.xi–xii), in keeping with Spenser's frugal habits of revision. The Shepheardes Calender was timed to coincide with the publication of the Spenser–Harvey correspondence containing clues to its authorship. Spenser was back in London by 10 July, perhaps signalling the end of his Kentish secretaryship. On 5 October he claims to be serving the Earl of Leicester, in a ‘composite epistle of three parts’ dated 5, 15, and 16 October 1579, from Leicester House, Westminster, and Mistress Kirk's, respectively (Welply 1941: 456). Spenser first wrote to Harvey to say that, having entered the earl's service, he was ready to travel abroad for his new master. Ten days later he was in ‘some use of familiarity’ with Philip Sidney and Edward Dyer, discussing the reform of English poetry (Prose, 6). Harvey mentions an acquaintance with Daniel Rogers, another associate of Sidney's and erstwhile informer of Henry Norris's (Prose, 477). The Leicester–Sidney circle had interests in Ireland—on 23 November Leicester was one of a group of privy councilors mandated ‘to consult of the affairs of Ireland’—so Spenser could be seen to be taking up that service when he went there with Lord Grey the following summer.

On 27 October 1579 Spenser married ‘Machabyas Chylde’ at St Margaret's Church, Westminster. Baptized there on 8 September 1560, her parentage is unrecorded (Eccles 1944: 424). Spenser's first wife is thought to be the daughter of Robert Chylde and Alice Lorde, married in St Margaret's on October 18, 1556, but no conclusive evidence exists (Eccles 1944: 424). Edmund and Maccabaeus had one child, Sylvanus, possibly named after Mulcaster's son ‘Silvan’ who was christened on 12 March 1564 in St Lawrence Pountney, parish church of Merchant Taylors', a christening Spenser may have attended. He may also have been at the boy's untimely funeral on 28 January 1573 (Welply 1941: 57). ‘Sylvanus’ also appears in Mantuan's eclogues, so behind Mulcaster was a literary source. We have no date of birth and few details of Sylvanus Spenser, probably born in 1580. He signed a Marriage Licence Bond to wed Ellin Nagle, daughter of David Nagle, in 1601 and had entered into his property by that date (Welply 1941: 438). Spenser's first marriage also produced an ‘eldest daughter’, Katherine (Welply 1933: 93). Another significant event of 1579 was Lord Justice Pelham's proclamation at Limerick on 6 November that every English horseman (p. 20) under his command should wear red crosses, front and back, ‘either of Silke or Cloth’. Coming so close to Spenser's embarking on The Faerie Queene this appears fortuitous (McLane 1959; Maley 1994: 10–11; Smith 1955). On 5 December 1579, The Shepheardes Calender was entered in the Stationers' Register.

On 6 March 1580, James Spenser carried letters to Limerick from Burleigh to Henry Wallop (McLane 1959: 100). On 2 April Spenser told Harvey he was working on The Faerie Queene. Harvey called it ‘Hobgoblin runne away with the Garland from Apollo’ (Prose, 472). ‘Hobgoblin’ had been used by one of Spenser's circle, Thomas Drant, in Horace his arte of poetrie, pistles and satyrs englished (1567: Biii). Spenser and Harvey's Three Proper, and wittie, familiar Letters, was entered into the Stationer's Register on 30 June. Harvey's last letter of 24 May mentions ‘a goodly Kentishe Garden of your old Lords’, a reference to Spenser's former service in Rochester (Prose, 466). The epistle ‘To the Curteous Buyer’ is dated 19 June. To these were attached Two Other, very commendable Letters, of the same mens writing. On 14 July Sir William Pelham (d. 1587), Lord Justice of Ireland, sues for ‘furtherance of his brother Spenser's suits’ (Maley 1994: 12). This reference to John Spenser, Pelham's brother‐in‐law through marriage to Pelham's sister, Mary, coincides almost exactly with Edmund's arrival in Ireland (Welply 1932: 147). On 15 July, Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton, was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. Spenser probably arrived in Chester on 28 July, accompanying Grey aboard The Handmaid, arriving in Dublin on 12 August. Letters in his hand appear from 29 August (cf. Chapter 4). Spenser would have attended Grey's investiture in Dublin, on 7 September. James Spenser died this month.

After his second anonymous foray into verse, Spenser, having set himself up as the most promising poet of his generation, failed to publish for the next decade. Theatre and Calender receded—though the latter went through successive editions and was frequently quoted and imitated—as Ireland became worldly stage and pastoral retreat. Spenser was busy both with the formidable task of writing The Faerie Queene, and his various duties as colonist and career civil servant. On 25 August 1580, the English were routed in Glenmalure, Wicklow, by Irish forces led by Feagh McHugh O'Byrne and James Eustace, third Viscount Baltinglass (1530–85). The notorious massacre at the Fort d'Oro (Golden Fort), Smerwick, on the Dingle Peninsula, occurred against this backdrop. From 13 September, a Spanish‐led force occupied Smerwick. Grey reached the fort on 31 October. The siege began on 7–8 November. Spenser, through Irenius, claims to have been present on 9 November 1580, when the Lord Deputy and his captains, including Walter Raleigh, put to the sword—after surrender—600 Spanish and Italian troops. In letters to Elizabeth and Burghley, scribed by Spenser, Grey justified his actions on grounds of expediency. Spenser later defended Grey against charges that he was a ‘blodye man’ (Prose, 159). Spenser's descriptions of the execution of Murrogh O'Brien, the Smerwick Massacre, and the Munster Famine are among the most graphic passages in the View (Prose, 158). These eyewitness accounts, debatable as personal testimony, are the closest we have to autobiography. Irenius, declaring himself an eyewitness— ‘my selfe beinge then as neare as anye’—tells Eudoxus that when the fort's commander, Sebastiano di San Giuseppi, sued for grace, Grey never guaranteed safe passage (Prose, 161–2). Grey died (p. 21) in October 1593, so did not live to see himself defended by his former secretary, a defence perhaps prompted by the death of Spenser's former patron, and the continuing violence in Ireland. He did live, though, to see the dedicatory sonnet appended to The Faerie Queene addressed to him in 1590 (Spenser 2001: 731).

Criticism of Grey's Deputyship hinged on his bloody reputation and favouring of followers, including the bestowing of lands taken from ‘rebels’. One man's rebellion was another's land‐grabbing exercise. Grey's tenure as Lord Deputy ended on 31 August 1582, two years after it had begun. Grey had often asked to be recalled, in angst‐ridden letters scribed by Spenser, requests fuelled by bad publicity in England. He remained praiseworthy in the eyes of ‘New English’ planters, Spenser included, who considered his harshness fitted to the times. It should be emphasized that, given Spenser's eighteen years minimum in Ireland, his secretaryship under Grey (1580–2) is only a small part of his administrative experience. Grey's recall marked the end of Spenser's secretaryship and the beginning of his deputyship, as assistant to Lodowick Bryskett, Clerk for the Council of Munster.

In his Discourse of Civill Life (1606), originally intended for dedication to Lord Grey, Bryskett placed Spenser among an elite literary gathering at Bryskett's house near Dublin in 1582, where the poet declines to speak on moral philosophy as he is already covering this topic poetically in The Faerie Queene (Pafford 1972: 26–9). Taken together with Harvey's comments in the correspondence this suggests an early starting date for Spenser's epic and a lengthy process of editing and revision. As well as Bryskett and Raleigh, there were new neighbours with reputations as writers, including Geoffrey Fenton, Barnaby Rich, Thomas Churchyard, and Barnaby Googe. Far from being the last resort of the failed and frustrated, Ireland was a testing‐ground for those inclined towards experimentation, innovation, and alternatives to established authority.

On 12 May 1583 Spenser is one of twenty‐seven men appointed commissioners for musters in County Kildare for two years, expected when called upon ‘to summon all the subjects of each barony, and then so mustered in warlike apparel’ (Maley 1994: 37–8). It is worth noting here that a James Spenser later served as Master of Musters in Munster, and was five years provincial commissioner of Musters in Ireland with William Jones. Is this the William Jones for whose translation of Nennio, or a Treatise of Nobility (1595) Spenser wrote a commendatory sonnet? He would not be the first English translator to find himself in Ireland (others, besides Bryskett, include Fenton, Florio, and Googe). On 6 November 1583, Bryskett, whose various offices Spenser seems to have shadowed as a more junior figure, was officially installed as Clerk of the Council of Munster, and secretary to Sir John Norris, aka ‘Black Jack’ (c.1547–97), President of the Council. Spenser acted as Bryskett's deputy from at least 31 December. His whereabouts in this period can be gauged—or guessed at—from the movements of the new Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrot, from the dates of sessions of the Dublin parliament, and from letters in Spenser's own hand. Assuming that Perrot required secretaries to follow him on tours of duty, Spenser may have accompanied him through Munster and Connaught in July 1584, before heading north to Ulster, returning to Dublin in October.

(p. 22) Raymond Jenkins calls the period 1584–9 ‘The Uncertain Years’, a crucial spell marking Spenser's transition from secretary to settler and archly anonymous author to writer of a major national epic (Jenkins 1938). By 8 December 1585 Spenser secured the Prebendary of Effin, a benefice attached to Limerick Cathedral. A ‘prebend’ was a pension or plot of land granted to a cathedral to fund a secular priest or regular canon. In the May and July eclogues of The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser attacked such lay appropriations as corrupt, and in Mother Hubberds Tale a priest conversing with a fox illustrates the careerism implicit in the pursuit of such offices (lines 479–501; see below pp. 40, 41).

As (Deputy) Clerk of the Council of Munster, Spenser likely attended the sessions at the presidency court in Limerick and Cork throughout 1585 and 1586. Plans were drafted to establish a colony of English settlers in the province on property in the region of 630,000 acres confiscated from the Earl of Desmond after the Desmond Rebellion (1579–83). Forfeited lands were surveyed in the autumn of 1584, and the plan for plantation, drawn up in December 1585, passed through the Irish parliament the following year. The plantation was parcelled out as ‘seignories’ of 12,000 acres. The Articles for the Munster Plantation received royal assent on 27 June 1586. The settlers, or ‘undertakers’—undertaking to occupy plots of the plantation—were digging their own graves on land recently witness to the walking dead of war and famine. A curious parallel exists between Spenser's own account of the Munster famine of the early 1580s and ‘A Brief Note of Ireland’ of 1598, though second time around the ‘unhappie Ghostes’ are colonists, not natives (Prose, 236).

The Munster Plantation seigniories were subdivided into 4,000 acre plots (cf. Chapter 5). Spenser acquired an estate of 3,028 acres in County Cork, connected to the ruined castle of Kilcolman (Irish for ‘Colman's Church’)—one of the smaller portions granted to English settlers from over half a million acres, surveyed by 16 February 1587 but not occupied until 3 September 1588 at the earliest—described as ‘a large castle, old, and dilapidated, which at the present time has no use except to shelter cattle at night’ (Maley 1994: 43). Spenser's estate was 1,000 acres shy of his original allocation, the shortfall perhaps in part the subject of his subsequent feud with Lord Roche. Spenser may have inhabited an adjoining house as well as occupying the castle itself. Like Dublin, Cork supplied Spenser with a wide range of colleagues, companions, and contacts, as well as writing time and materials. Munster proved fertile ground for fertile minds, accommodating a respectable group of literary figures. Here was an areopagus, a gathering of shepherd‐poets, away from Cambridge, court, and city. As well as Raleigh, who had a vast estate of over 42,000 acres, or three and a half seigniories, neighbours included Richard Beacon, Meredith Hanmer, and Sir William Herbert, all authors of treatises on Ireland. Raleigh's visit to Kilcolman is recorded in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. Spenser presumably visited in turn Raleigh's house at Youghal, where the latter served as mayor.

A sonnet to Harvey dated Dublin 18 July 1586, later included in Harvey's Foure Letters (1592), suggests Spenser spent time in the Irish capital (Spenser 1999: 500). The evidence of the Irish state papers implies Spenser spent most of the following year in Munster. Some time in 1587 or 1588 Spenser's sister, Sarah, married John Travers, who later served under Essex as Commissary of Victuals at Carrickfergus, and her brother (p. 23) assigned as a wedding gift two plough lands of his Irish estate, subsequently disputed territory (Welply 1932: 149; 1940: 93). Maurice, Lord Roche, Sixth Viscount Roche of Fermoy (d. 1600), a prominent Old English landowner, complained to the Queen's Commissioners that English planters had illegally occupied his land. Thus began a lengthy process of litigation.

1589: Kilcolman, The Faerie Queene, Court, and Complaints

On 22 May 1589 Spenser secured official possession of Kilcolman. One of the ‘undertakings’, or conditions, to which he had agreed, entailed establishing a colony of six English households. A key criticism of the Munster plantation after its overthrow in October 1598 was the settlers' failure to fulfil their obligations with regard to peopling the plantation. It was hard to entice families over to that war‐torn region. Two documents show Spenser involved in Chancery disputes in Dublin at this time. On 10 June 1589, Richard Roche of Kinsale and Edmund Spenser entered a bond in Chancery between Spenser and Hugh Strawbridge. On 18 June Spenser was entrusted with the delivery of James Shropp to Newgate, Dublin (Gillespie and Hadfield 2001: 250; Welply 1932: 110–14). On 12 October 1589, Lord Roche protested about encroachments upon his property, naming Spenser among the guilty parties. The undertakers in turn alleged that Roche ‘has imprisoned men of…Mr. Edmund Spenser and others. He speaks ill of Her Majesty's government and hath uttered words of contempt of Her Majesty's laws, calling them unjust’ (Maley 1994: 51–2). Accusation following counter‐accusation, and the case haunted Spenser throughout the 1590s, perhaps influencing the debate on jurisdiction and territorial rights in Two Cantos of Mutabilitie (Coughlan 1996). Sylvanus Spenser later married the granddaughter of William Roche, a kinsman of Lord Roche (Welply 1932: 202). Intermarriage, against which Spenser inveighed in the View, went with the territory, as his own family tree attests (Prose, 117, 119–20; Welply 1932).

In October 1589 Spenser left Cork for Court with Raleigh. The first three books of The Faerie Queene, entered in the Stationers' Register on 1 December 1589, appeared early in 1590. Spenser's ‘Letter to Raleigh’ is dated 23 January 1590. On 26 October 1590, Spenser received official confirmation of his estate at Kilcolman in the form of a royal grant. Complaints was entered into the Stationer's Register on 29 December 1590. In a preface to the reader, the printer, William Ponsonby says that since his previous publication for Spenser—The Faerie Queene—proved so successful, he has ‘endeavoured by all good meanes […] to get into my handes such smale Poemes of the same Authors; as I heard were disperst abroad in sundrie hands, and not easie to (p. 24) bee come by, by himselfe: some of them having bene diuerslie imbeziled and purloyned from him, since his departure ouer Sea’ (Spenser 1999: 165).

About this time, Raleigh, fellow recipient of the appropriated Desmond lands, introduced Spenser's poem—and, perhaps less likely, the poet himself—to Elizabeth. On 25 February 1591 the Queen granted the poet a life pension of £50 a year, to be paid in four annual installments: Lady Day (25 March), Nativity of John the Baptist (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September), and Christmas (Berry and Timings 1960: 255). Spenser's life now looked less haphazard, with royal recognition, a permanent foothold in Ireland, and the first part of his epic in print. Things were looking up, but he'd be dead before the decade was out, still only in his late forties. Although he published nothing new in the 1580s, in the dedicatory letter to Raleigh prefixed to Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, dated from Kilcolman 27 December 1591, Spenser assured his patron he was ‘not alwaies ydle as yee thinke, though not greatly well occupied, nor altogither undutifull, though not precisely officious’ (Spenser 1999: 344).

Spenser certainly proved productive in the years that followed. His work is cited with increasing frequency among contemporaries, including Samuel Daniel, John Florio, Abraham Fraunce, Sir John Harington, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Henry Peacham, and George Peele. Daphnaida appeared under Ponsonby's imprint early in 1591, with Spenser's dedicatory preface dated from London, 1 January. Axiochus, a meditation on mortality between Socrates and an old man, appeared the following year. The modern attribution to Spenser rests on verbal echoes (especially The Faerie Queene II.xii.51).

In Ireland, protracted legal wrangling with Lord Roche hampered Spenser's efforts to make his holding appear as permanent as the royal grant had implied ( ‘forever in fee farm’). The year 1593 saw Roche once more complaining bitterly of ‘Edmond Spenser, gentleman, a heavy adversary’ (Maley 1994: 60). Spenser acted as Queen's Justice for Cork in 1594. We do not know what happened to Spenser's first wife. We do know that on St Barnabas Day, 11 June 1594, Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle, kinswoman of Richard Boyle, who as Earl of Cork became one of Ireland's greatest landowners. Elizabeth was also related to the Spencers of Althorp (Heffner 1938–9; Strathmann 1943). They had one child, Peregrine. Elizabeth, daughter of Stephen—of Bradden, near Towcester, Northamptonshire (Welply 1924: 446)—and Joan Boyle, was one of four children. Her mother remarried after her father's death in 1582, to Ferdinando Freckleton, and this became significant when a suit was brought in the interests of the children of her former marriage (Welply 1924: 446; Strathmann 1943). Elizabeth Spenser remarried twice—to Roger Seckerstone in 1600 and Robert Tynte in 1612/13—bearing each husband a son before her death on 23 August 1622 (Welply 1924: 445; 1932: 63). Spenser's courtship and marriage, depicted in the sonnet sequence Amoretti and marriage hymn Epithalamion, entered in the Stationers' Register on 19 November 1594, appeared as a single volume in early 1595, ‘Written not long since’. The dedicatory note by Ponsonby to Sir Robert Needham, says he assumed responsibility for publishing the poems in their author's absence, describing Spenser as ‘that wel‐deseruing gentleman’ (Spenser 1999: 386). The pastoral satire, (p. 25) Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, appeared the same year, but its dating ‘From my house of Kilcolman’ on 27 December 1591 suggests it was prepared four years earlier. Published together with Colin was Astrophel, the elegy for Philip Sidney, dedicated to his widow, Frances Walsingham, Countess of Essex. Sidney died in 1586, so this is presumably yet another selection from the back catalogue, timed to coincide with the publication of Sidney's Apology for Poetry (1595). At this time, Spenser published a commendatory sonnet prefixed to William Jones's translation of Nennio, or a Treatise of Nobility (1595). This fragment of Spenser's corpus, outside the orbit of most criticism, exemplifies the faith in merit that endeared him to Milton. The work is recommended to

  • Who so wil seeke by right deserts t'attaine
  •  vnto the type of true Nobility,
  •  And not by painted shewes and titles vaine,
  •  Deriued farre from famous Auncestrie. (Spenser 1999: 500)

Ironically, Spenser had attached himself to a house of ancient fame, the Spencers of Althorp, and in a public manner that suggests the claim held water (Spenser 1999: 130).

Spenser may have completed the View by summer 1596, before travelling to London to attend the weddings celebrated in Prothalamion. The View recommends the appointment of a Lord Lieutenant to oversee Irish affairs and refers to ‘suche an one I Coulde name uppon whom the ey of all Englande is fixed and our laste hopes now rest’ (Prose, 228). Commentators suggest Spenser was looking to Essex, who assumed that office on 12 March 1599, within two months of paying for the poet's funeral. Spenser continued his environmentally friendly publishing practice, recycling in the green style, with the appearance of Fowre Hymnes, the first two written ‘in the greener times of my youth’, dated 1 September 1596, dedicated from the court at Greenwich (Spenser 1999: 452). This volume contained the second edition of Daphnaida. This year also witnessed the publication of Prothalamion, a marriage hymn celebrating the spousals of Lady Elizabeth and Katherine Somerset, daughters of the Earl of Worcester, an associate of Essex. Spenser may have attended the weddings, held at Essex House, London, on 8 November 1596, given his presence in London recorded in the Fowre Hymnes. That Essex is lavishly praised in Prothalamion lends weight to the earl's identification as Spenser's candidate for Ireland in the View.

If Spenser was in London in November 1596 then he may have felt the backdraft from a heated exchange of letters. The second edition of The Faerie Queene (1596) fell foul of James VI. One touchy subject depicted allegorically in Book V was the trial of Elizabeth's cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, mother of the reigning Scottish king, executed on 8 February 1587. Two of Spenser's patrons, Grey and Leicester, were commissioners at the trial (‘MS Notes to Spenser's Faerie Queene’ 1957: 512). Robert Bowes, English ambassador in Scotland, informed Burghley on 1 November 1596 that King James, distressed at the depiction of his mother in V.ix, had ordered copies of the poem destroyed, asking that his English counterpart do likewise. Bowes wrote to Burghley again on 12 November, having persuaded James the poem was not (p. 26) published with royal approval. James insisted the poet ‘for his fault may be tried and duly punished’ (McCabe 1987; Maley 1994: 67–8). This was a fraught month for Spenser. On 20 November he brought a bill before Chancery, and two days later he is mentioned in a Chancery writ involving Erasmus Dryden, Edward Cope, and John Matthewe (Hamer 1931: 273; Welply 1924). The story unravelled by W. H. Welply is one whereby Spenser and his new wife, Elizabeth, together with her brothers George and Alexander, sued for the legacy they were entitled to on coming to full age or marriage after their mother remarried. Spenser continued to acquire land in Ireland, despite the growing menace of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, whose forces overran English‐controlled territory. In 1597 Spenser bought the castle of Renny in south Cork and its surrounding lands for his young son, Peregrine, for £200. Buttevant Abbey also came into his possession. By 7 February 1598, Spenser was in arrears for the rent of this property (Maley 1994: 71).

The View was entered in the Stationers' Register on 14 April 1598 but a note in one manuscript (Bodley NS Rawlinson B. 478) reads ‘Mr Collinges | pray enter this Copie for mathew Lownes to be printed when he do bringe other authoritie’ (Maley 1994: 72). Some critics conclude the text was suppressed, but works entered in the register were sometimes queried because of turf wars between publishers. Matthew Lownes was a printer with piracy in his past (most notably over Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella), so the View may have been caught up in a tug‐of‐war between rival printers (Hadfield 1994). Around twenty manuscript copies survive including one Essex may have carried during his Irish campaign (cf. Chapter 17).

On 14 August 1598, English forces were routed at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. On 30 September, with the Munster Plantation verging on violent dissolution, the Privy Council appointed Spenser sheriff of Cork. Despite the rebuke from King James and apparent apprehension around publishing the View, Spenser still had friends in high places—at least in Ireland. On 4 October 1598, Sir Thomas Norris and others informed London that a force of 2,000 ‘rebels’ was advancing towards them. Limerick fell the next day. Within two weeks the New English settlement was overthrown, Kilcolman sacked and burnt. Spenser's family fled to Cork city where the poet was ensconced on 7 December.

Confusion persists as to when Spenser left Ireland for the last time, although Ray Heffner put forward a clear case many years ago (Heffner 1933: 222). Spenser appears to have left Cork after 13 December bearing two letters from the President of Munster, Sir Thomas Norris, to the Privy Council and Robert Cecil, dated 9 and 13 December respectively, detailing the desperate situation in the province. On 21 December Norris wrote to the Privy Council again mentioning his ‘last of the 9th this month, and sent by Mr. Spenser’ (but not the letter to Cecil of the 13th). The two letters carried by Spenser arrived with the poet in London on or about the 24 December. Norris's second letter to the Privy Council was received at Whitehall on 29 December. On 30 December Spenser was paid a messenger's fee of £8. It is possible this sum was disbursed among separate messengers, with Spenser not the sole recipient.

(p. 27) 1599: Pension, Monument, Works

Spenser died in King Street, Westminster, on 13 January 1599. According to Ben Jonson, ‘the Irish, having robbed Spenser's goods and burnt his house and a little child new‐born, he and his wife escaped, and after he died for lack of bread in King Street’ (Parfitt 1984: 465). No other evidence of the dead child exists and critics consider it unlikely Spenser starved, having been paid £8 for delivering letters and with £25 pension in the offing. In Tritons' Trumpet (1621) John Lane repeats in rhyme the report of Spenser's death by starvation. After a two‐month siege it is not too far‐fetched that a man who had scarce escaped with his life might respond to Essex's offer of twenty crowns with the words ‘the medicine comes too late for the pacient!’ (Heffner 1933: 223).

Moreover, ‘we have no record of the payment of the pension’ prior to his death (Heffner 1933: 224). In fact, evidence suggests the pension was not paid till February—to a third party. Selling‐on of pensions was common practice, as was borrowing against one's pension, so Spenser could have secured funds quite readily. The first instalment of Spenser's pension, for the month following 26 February 1591, was collected on 25 March by Edward Blount, former apprentice of the printer William Ponsonby, and another Merchant Taylors' son who published Marlowe's Hero and Leander, Florio's Montaigne, and Shakespeare's first folio (Berry and Timings 1960: 255). Ponsonby collected the next instalment on 24 June, Richard Wilson the Michaelmas 1593 instalment, and on 25 March 1594 Ralph Warde made the collection, after which payments were made half‐yearly. George Dryden, brother of Erasmus, collected the Michaelmas 1594 pension, and the next record available shows that Thomas Walker picked up Spenser's £25 on 31 January 1598, and the same sum on 26 August 1598. Henry Vincent—son of Elizabeth Spencer of Northamptonshire, conceivably Edmund's mother by former marriage (Brink 1997: 51)—collected the last instalment of £25 on 28 February 1599, six weeks after Spenser's death. The reason for the late payment was the drain on the treasury caused by the Irish wars, and specifically the overthrow of the Munster Plantation (Berry and Timings 1960: 257–8). Funds usually available from 24 December were not released till 5 February.

Buried in Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer, on 16 January, Camden spoke of Spenser's ‘hearse being attended by poets, and mournful elegies and poems, with the pens that wrote them, thrown into the tomb’ (Maley 1994: 80; Wells, II, 178–9). Was Hamlet Spenser, then aged twenty‐eight or twenty‐nine, among the mourners? In 1620, Ann Clifford, Countess of Dorset, to whose mother and aunt Fowre Hymnes was dedicated, commissioned Nicholas Stone to erect a monument inscribed: ‘Heare lyes (expecting the Second comminge of our Saviour Christ Jesus) the body of Edmond Spencer, the Prince of Poets in his tyme; whose divine spirrit needs noe othir witnesse then the works which he left behinde him. He was borne in London in the yeare 1510. And Died in the yeare 1596’ (Judson 1945: 207; Maley 1994: 80). Fittingly, this belated epitaph managed to mangle its few facts—recalling Spenser's (p. 28) probabilistic approach to history reliant on ‘monimentes of Churches and Tombes’ (Prose, 85)—but the claim that Spenser's works are his best witnesses still stands. The monument notwithstanding, no grave was found during that 1938 search (Eagle 1956). Welply's harsh judgement of biographical studies of the poet— ‘This is just blethers’ (1941: 56)—is hard to shake off. Without the riches of the work the scraps of the life from schoolboy to sizar to secretary to settler to sheriff would be a vain foraging after straw.


I thank Andrew Hadfield, Thomas Herron, and Richard McCabe for reading successive drafts and saving me from errors, ghosts, and bad puns.

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