shilling rhymes

Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) is often associated with audacious action and speech: as the cleric and historian Thomas Fuller put it some forty years after his death, he was “dexterous … in all his undertakings, in Court, in Camp, by Sea, by Land, with Sword, with Pen.” Fuller reports that, early in his court career, Ralegh exchanged verses with the Queen, writing “in a glasse Window, obvious to the Queens eye, ‘Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall’”, to which “her Majesty … did under-write, ‘If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all'”. While this story is almost certainly apocryphal, we can be certain that the young courtier wrote at least one poem to which Elizabeth made reply, “Fortune hath taken thee away my love”. Ralegh was also keen on more playful verse contests: one of his early compositions, for which a witty companion piece is extant, is a pun on the name of the courtier Henry Noel, while another might have originated in a poetic challenge with his acquaintance George Whitestone.

A manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (MS Fr 5549), containing some unpublished mock epitaphs by Ralegh and other courtiers, bears further witness to his talent for witty jeux d’esprit. That these texts were not noticed before may be due to the make-up of the volume in which they were copied. It consists of two different sections, the diary of the Parisian priest Jehan de La Fosse and a miscellaneous collection of epitaphs written by at least six scribes between the mid- to late sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century. The book, however, was known to English scholars from as early as 1860, when a note on Bent’s Monthly Literary Advertiser stated that “… a small volume in morocco in the Imperial Library, ostensibly of French MSS only … contains an old English commonplace book full of unpublished epitaphs”. No one seems to have pursued this inkling any further.

Most of the entries are transcripts of funerary inscriptions and epitaphs, often copied from printed sources in various languages: Latin, for the greater part, but also Greek, Italian, Spanish, French and English. One individual, quite probably the last contemporary owner of this volume (hereafter identified as “Scribe 5”), wrote the majority of them – often filling any available blank space in the book – and completed the index started by an earlier compiler. The handwriting does not bear similarities with that of the great historians and antiquarians of the mid-seventeenth century (such as Robert Naunton, William Camden, John Weever, Thomas Fuller, John Aubrey or Joseph Hall), or with those visible in the manuscript collections containing variant versions of these texts. Scribe 5, nonetheless, was a meticulous collector. He cited his sources carefully, sometimes even to the detail of their page or folio, and about 90 per cent of his attributions appear to be correct. His notes prove that he consulted various editions of Latin classical authors, as well as collections of epigraphs and memorabilia such as Lorenz Schrader’s Monumentorum Italiae (1592) and Tommaso Garzoni’s La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (1588-1605). Among the latest datable texts there is an epitaph for Henry, Prince of Wales (d. 1612), and one supposedly written by Thomas Walsingham (d. 1630; the fifth epitaph below). No other text quoted in the manuscript appears to be later than 1625 or to have been copied from texts printed after this date. These elements, together with the absence of any mention of later important collections such as John Weever’s Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), seems to indicate that the volume was largely complete by the mid- to late 1620s.

The manuscript, then, constitutes a near-contemporary, quite reliable source of Elizabethan and Jacobean texts. Scribe 5’s “English” section (in which almost all the entries bear Latin titles) is a wonderful collection of little-known pieces, many of which relate to important figures of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court, including Philip Sidney, Sir Francis Walsingham, Thomas Sackville, Penelope Devereux, Richard Bancroft, Robert Cecil and others.

A subsection contains a set of mock epitaphs that Scribe 5 described as “couplets” written by Ralegh and other authors “about themselves, alive”. That, however, is quite evidently not a fitting description for two scurrilous pieces on Mary Stafford nee Boleyn, Anne’s sister and Henry VIII’s mistress (here depicted as “a very odd woman / that worshiped Priapus, and no other God”) and Lady Charity White (d. 1618), wife to Charles Howard, 2nd Earl of Nottingham. Nor does it apply to some verses on “Jon How” and “Ned Wimark” (“th’one the Verger” […]the other the Pasq[i]ull of Poules”), and on Sir Edward Stanhope (d. 1608, remembered here as one who “did nothing for nothing in all his tyme: / and therefore now I look for nothing of him for my ryme”).

The texts below, however, clearly do fall within this heading. The opening exchange (1-2) features a set of rhyming couplets by Ralegh and his distant relative John Chidley [Chudleigh] (1564-89). This offers a delightful and hitherto unknown window on to an early chapter in Ralegh’s life: John is portrayed as courting Bess Throckmorton, Ralegh’s future wife, by presenting her with a lavish gift, but in so doing spending much beyond his means. It seems unlikely (though not impossible: Chidley got married in 1581) that this exchange can date before Bess – sworn of the Privy Chamber in 1584 – came to reside at court. The poetic contention, in any case, must evidently have taken place before Chidley left Plymouth on August 5, 1589, on the unfortunate journey from which he would never return, and which Ralegh might have in part sponsored.

The third poem below was written by Ralegh’s cousin and lifelong friend, the poet Arthur Gorges (d. 1625), suggesting that the first three texts were written at about the same time, and that they may date to the mid- to late 1580s. In fact, in about 1587 Thomas Churchyard produced a Shrovetide show in which Ralegh, Chidley, and Gorges took part. Churchyard, at least from 1585, was on good terms also with another man who appears in these pages, Silvanus Scory (1551-1617), the reckless son of the Bishop of Hereford, whose poem is the sixth below. A friend of Ralegh and a client of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, Scory had some poetic talent: he wrote a poetic “advice” on the occasion of Ralegh’s second voyage to Guiana and may be the “SS” who prefixed a commendatory sonnet to Gorges’s translation of Lucan in 1614. (I am grateful to Jonathan Gibson for this information.) Scory may have had various occasions to socialize with Ralegh and Gorges at court, as he is mentioned as an Esquire for the Body at the Funeral of Queen Elizabeth. He could have easily met Chidley as well, as the latter was certainly at court in 1588, when he exchanged New Year’s gifts with the Queen, and probably at other times during the mid-late 1580s.

Two other names in this section were connected with the court. John Parker (c.1548-1617) was a descendant of a prominent Sussex family and a cousin of Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. He had probably been serving at court since the late 1570s and was a gentleman pensioner by the mid- to late 1580s. Rather than Sir Francis’s brother (1526-84), the Thomas Walsingham here was probably his nephew (1560-1630), Marlowe’s and Chapman’s patron – portrayed here as an inveterate theater.

The couplets attributed to Parker and Walsingham resonate with Gorges and Scory’s self-mocking verses. Responsa And answer-poems were typical of a Renaissance gentleman’s education at school, university and the Inns of Court—and epitaph duelling was practised, too, if we are to believe Thomas Fuller, in any tavern where Shakespeare bumped into Ben Jonson. There is no evidence to suggest that Ralegh invited his fellow courtiers here to a collective poetical duel. No doubt, however, he would have enjoyed it. After all, he was most certainly “dexterous”, at court and elsewhere, “with Sword, with Pen”.

Carlo M. Bagetta is Professor of English at Università della Valle d’Aosta, Italy. He is currently working on a biography of Ralegh for Reaktion and will be the general editor, together with Jonathan Gibson, of the Oxford Sir Walter Ralegh


Distica quaedam stilo Epitaphio iocosa ficta per Dominum
Walterum Ralegh Ioannem Chidly Arturum
Gorges, et alios viuentes de seipsis.

[Some jocular couplets devised as Epitaphs
by Sir Walter Ralegh, John Chidley, Arthur
Gorges, and others about themselves, alive]

[1]
Epitaphius Ioannis Chidley Acolasti qui emit
speculum de 200 libris quod daret
Elizabethae Throckmorton

[Epitaph of the akolastic* John Chidley, who bought
a mirror for 200 pounds** as a present
for Elizabeth Throckmorton]

Here lyeth Chidley, that idle-headed ass,
that sold his landes to buy a looking glass. WR

[2]
Epitaphius Walteri Ralegh

Here lyeth Walter Ralegh that arrant villain,
that would sell any frend that hee had for a shillin.
per Iohannem Chidly.

[3]
Epitaphius Arturi Gorges

Here lyeth Artur Gorge that gogle ey’d Jack,
that neuer spake well of any man behind his back

[4]
Epitaphius Iohannis Parkar

Here lyeth John Parkar, witness this ryme,
who in whoring and dicing spent all his time.

[5]
Epitaphius Thomae Walsingham

Here lyeth Thomas Walsingham who spent all his days
in tavernes and bordells and in seeing of playes

[6]
Epitaphius Syluani Scory

here lyeth Syluanus a fellow very odd
whose kitchin was his chapell, and his belly his god.

[* Akolastic: “a prodigal or licentious person”. The term acquired currency in England as early as 1540 with John Palsgrave’s Comedye of Acolastus, a translation of Gulielmus Gnapheus’s Latin school play Acolastus.
** No matter how costly Elizabethan jewellery may have been, this is evidently an exaggeration. When Arthur Throckmorton, Bess’s brother, sent his beloved Anne Lucas a gold ring set with diamonds, this cost him a total of £23 and 40 shillings. A silver “looking-glass”, a flask and another item bought on November 30, 1588, cost him £33. C.B.]

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